Lawyers for accused bitcoin money launderer Heather Morgan in talks with prosecutors to avoid trial
A federal prosecutor said in court Monday that he and lawyers for a woman accused of trying to launder $4.5 billion in stolen bitcoin with her husband are discussing a possible “resolution” of her criminal case without going to trial.
The disclosure strongly suggests that Heather “Razzlekhan” Morgan, who only was arrested with her husband Ilya “Dutch” Lichtenstein on Feb. 8, could be offered a plea deal in a case that has already seen the Justice Department seize more than $3.6 billion in bitcoin that was part of the alleged scheme.
It was the largest financial seize in the department’s history.
Morgan, a 31-year-old rapper and entrepreneur who was released from jail last Friday on $3 million bond bail, appeared via phone from her home in New York City for a hearing in Washington, D.C., federal court on Monday.
Her 34-year-old husband did not appear for the hearing. He has been denied bail and remains in jail.
Early in the proceeding, Morgan told Judge Robin Meriweather that she has recently been diagnosed with Covid-19.
At the hearing, Morgan was advised, again, of the nature of the charges against her. She and Lichtenstein are accused of trying to hide the source of the nearly 120,000 bitcoin stolen in the 2016 hack of the cryptocurrency Bitfinex.
Prosecutors accused the couple of engaging in a complex series of transactions to launder the swiped bitcoin.
Neither of the defendants is charged with the hack itself. At the time of the hack, the stolen bitcoin was worth $70 million, but the cryptocurrency greatly appreciated in value in the years since then.
At the hearing, Meriweather set Morgan’s next court date for March 25.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Brown, a cybercrimes prosecutor, asked Meriweather to suspend the so-called speedy trial clock for Morgan until then. That clock requires prosecutors to try defendants in federal felony criminal cases within 70 days of an indictment being issued.
Brown told the judge there were two main reasons for suspending the clock.
The first was the extensive amount of evidence to be shared with defense lawyers in the case, which Brown said is expected to be “complex and voluminous.”
The prosecutor said the evidence would include thousands of financial transactions involving cryptocurrency and U.S. dollars over a five-year span, across dozens of financial accounts in the defendants’ names.
Brown also noted that authorities had seized more than 50 electronic devices from Morgan and Lichtenstein.
The second reason to suspend the clock, Brown said, was “to allow the parties to engage in discussions for resolution of this case short of trial.”
Morgan’s lawyers did not object to the suspension of the clock, or to Brown’s characterization of their discussions.
The prosecutors also wrote in court filings: “The Government and defense counsel are engaged in discussions concerning a possible disposition of this matter.”
Gerald Lefcourt, a New York attorney who previously served as president of the National Association of Criminal Lawyers, when read that language by CNBC and informed of Brown’s comments said, “They’re plea bargaining.”
“That’s typical language when the government and the defense informs the judge” that they are discussing a possible plea bargain for a defendant, said Lefcourt, who is not associated with the case.
Lefcourt also said that “it’s not typical” for prosecutors and defense lawyers to start plea talks so soon after a defendant’s arrest, as appears to be the case for Morgan.
“But, you know, there are many situations where the government surprisingly learns a lot of things before filing” a criminal case, “and bright defense lawyers see the writing on the wall.”
Samson Enzer, Morgan’s lawyer, did not immediately respond to messages from CNBC seeking comment.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia declined to comment.
Netflix announced earlier this month that it had commissioned a docuseries about the case.
Netflix said the series on the couple will be directed by Chris Smith, who helmed the Netflix series “FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened,” about the fraudulent Fyre Festival, and was executive producer of the company’s Covid pandemic smash hit “Tiger King.