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Federal judges hold rare joint hearing in biker drug cases

A rare joint hearing was set Tuesday before two federal judges to consider evidence of alleged government misconduct in separate drug cases against a former Vagos motorcycle gang leader.

Jeremy Halgat, 36, a former Vagos sergeant at arms, faces cocaine trafficking charges in one case before U.S. District Judge Andrew Gordon and charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and carrying a weapon during the conspiracy in the other case before U.S. District Judge Jennifer Dorsey.

His defense lawyer, Melanie Hill, obtained a recommendation from U.S. Magistrate Judge Cam Ferenbach to dismiss the charges in the case before Gordon because of “outrageous government conduct,” and federal prosecutors later asked Gordon to reject the magistrate’s findings.

Hill also asked Dorsey to dismiss the case before her because of similar misconduct allegations, which prosecutors denied in court papers.

Both Gordon and Dorsey said in court Tuesday that they wanted to hold the joint evidentiary hearing to save judicial resources before they issued separate orders in their cases.

They met for about 40 minutes with lawyers from both sides to set dates in November for the hearing, which could last up to four days.

“We recognize this is an unusual hearing,” Dorsey said Tuesday, with Gordon on the bench at her side.

Both judges said they felt it was prudent to combine their resources in resolving the misconduct allegations.

In July, Ferenbach issued a written opinion concluding outrageous government had occurred in the case before Gordon, and he blamed the wrongdoing on the lead undercover agent, Agostino Brancato, a deputized agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Ferenbach concluded that Brancato manufactured the cocaine case against Halgat, though Halgat had no criminal record and repeatedly told the agent in secretly recorded conversations that he did not want to traffic in drugs.

Ferenbach also said Brancato “falsified” a report of one of the alleged drug transactions and that supervisors of his ATF-led task force “did not dissuade him” from doing it.

But federal prosecutors responded in writing that no government misconduct occurred, and they criticized the magistrate’s lack of understanding of how criminal investigations work.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Andrew Duncan and Cristina Silva insisted Brancato did not manufacture the case against Halgat, and the assertion that he falsified a report of his dealings with Halgat was not supported by the record of evidence.

Brancato was the lead undercover agent in Operation Pure Luck, a three-year joint investigation led by the ATF into drug and illegal weapons dealing by members of motorcycle gangs, primarily the Vagos club.

The investigation was launched in April 2010 with the secret help of a Vagos gang member; and two years later Brancato, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy deputized by the ATF, became a full-fledged member of the Vagos club while working undercover.

More than two dozen motorcycle gang members were charged with drug and weapons trafficking in a series of federal and state indictments last year in the high-profile investigation.

Contact Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-8135. Find him on Twitter: @JGermanRJ.

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