Pubdate: Fri, 21 May 2004
Source: Post and Courier, The (Charleston, SC)
Copyright: 2004 Evening Post Publishing Co.


Grand Jury Indicts 3 Lawyers On Cocaine Conspiracy Charges

A sense of surprise and sadness settled over Charleston's legal community 
Thursday as a former prosecutor and two defense lawyers were led before a 
judge for their suspected involvement in an area cocaine ring.

A state grand jury indicted former Assistant Solicitor Damon Cook and 
lawyers Tara Anderson Thompson and Todd Anthony Strich on charges of 
conspiring to distribute cocaine in Charleston County. Three others -- 
Charles Edward Deese Jr., Rebecca Leigh McCollum and Joseph Angelo Ambrosia 
- -- have been indicted on cocaine trafficking charges.

The indictments offer few details on the workings of the alleged ring, and 
state prosecutors have refused to discuss details of the ongoing, 
undercover investigation.

Andy Savage, Cook's lawyer, said the indictments seem to indicate the three 
lawyers are accused of recreational drug use and nothing more.

"There is absolutely no hint of a financial incentive or any other 
incentive," he said.

The Charleston legal community was abuzz Thursday with news of the 
indictments. Local lawyers seemed most surprised about Cook, who handled 
drug cases and was considered a rising star in the solicitor's office.

"It's heartbreaking," Charleston lawyer Stephen Schmutz said. "He was one 
of the first people (Solicitor) Ralph (Hoisington) hired. I think everyone 
had great expectations for him."

Hoisington fired Cook last month after consulting with officials from the 
state attorney general's office. Though he had once considered Cook to have 
a bright future in the solicitor's office, "all you can do when you have a 
bad apple is cut it out of the barrel," he said.

After the firing, Hoisington said, he required drug testing for other 
prosecutors who handle drug cases, but no evidence of narcotics use was found.

Hoisington said he reviewed the cases Cook handled in the past six months 
to check for improprieties or tampering but found no evidence that any 
occurred. In that period, Cook handled arrest warrants for about 150 
defendants, he said.

Hoisington said he was particularly concerned about the resolution of two 
cases: one that involved a motion for a drastic reduction of the sentence 
for a suspect in a drug case and another in which an accused crack cocaine 
trafficker was allowed to plead to a lesser charge that carried a much 
shorter sentence.

Hoisington said he still disagrees with those judgments, adding that such 
outcomes would be more desirable for a defense attorney than a prosecutor.

"I'm still not satisfied that it reflected our goals in this office," he 
said. "Truthfully, I think he was compromised in his professional abilities 
by his private actions. To me, he let down this office, he let down law 
enforcement, and, most of all, he let down himself."

Hoisington said, however, that assistant prosecutors are given great 
discretion in their handling of cases, and he found no evidence to suggest 
a "direct connection" between Cook's actions in court and the crimes he's 
accused of committing. If any illegal manipulation of cases had occurred, 
the state grand jury likely would have included that in the indictments, 
Hoisington said.

Of the three lawyers, the longest serving and best known is Thompson. A 
feisty criminal defense lawyer who was admitted to the bar in 1998, she 
first made headlines that same year when she accused former Circuit Judge 
Lawrence E. Richter Jr. and Charleston lawyer Robert Howe of offering her 
cocaine at a party held by an assistant solicitor.

Thompson, a law student at the time, testified before the Legislature's 
Judicial Screening Committee that she never saw any drugs, but she thought 
she was offered cocaine because the two men put their fingers to their 
noses and made sniffing sounds.

Neither Richter nor Howe were charged with anything as a result of 
Thompson's allegations.

In June 2002, Charleston County sheriff's deputies arrested Thompson on 
charges that she struck her husband, tried to run down at least one man 
with her minivan and used the vehicle to damage a car, a boat and a house 
during an incident in West Ashley. She faced several charges, including 
assault with intent to kill. Those charges, however, were later dismissed 
after she completed a pretrial intervention program, authorities said.

Thompson and Strich, who was admitted to the South Carolina Bar in 2001, 
shared an office building on Folly Road but had separate law practices.

Five of the six defendants appeared at the Richland County Courthouse on 
Thursday for bail hearings. The sixth, Joseph Angelo Ambrosia, 63, of West 
Ashley, who is accused of being a drug supplier, is thought to have fled 
the state, said officials with the attorney general's office. A bench 
warrant was issued for his arrest.

Cook, 29, of Mount Pleasant; Thompson, 41, of Daniel Island; and Strich 29, 
of West Ashley were released on personal recognizance bonds, as was cocaine 
trafficking suspect Rebecca Leigh McCollum, 21, of Pickens.

Fellow trafficking suspect Charles Edward Deese Jr., 28, of Ladson, was 
released and allowed to continue on a $100,000 bail he was granted in a 
separate case.

It is unclear how the suspects, who come from several towns and from 
different generations, all came together.

McCollum is said to be a former College of Charleston student with no prior 
local arrests. Ambrosia, who has a previous marijuana conviction, is 
reportedly a trumpet player who has performed with a local salsa band. 
Deese was arrested in Charleston in October on a separate cocaine 
trafficking charge.

Trey Walker, spokesman for Attorney General Henry McMaster, said copies of 
the lawyers' indictments have been sent to the S.C. Supreme Court's Office 
of the Disciplinary Counsel, which can recommend suspension, disbarment or 
other disciplinary action.

"It's unfortunate they have been indicted, and it's unfortunate it's come 
to the public's attention, but I think we all need to remember there is a 
presumption of innocence," said Jerry Theos, a member of Charleston County 
Bar Association's executive committee. "This is something that, obviously, 
will be a very difficult thing for them to deal with."

Clay Barbour of The Post and Courier staff contributed to this report.
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