By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
A dozen years ago, Miami U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro sentenced Martin Chambers to 15 years in prison after a two-week trial at which a jury found him guilty in a scheme to launder millions of dollars for a Colombian drug cartel. Chambers, a Canadian, remains imprisoned today.
For years, hushed allegations have swirled that Judge Ungaro slept with the government’s key witness in the case – a dashing Royal Canadian Mounted Police undercover agent
Ungaro’s ex-husband, who claims the affair ruined his marriage, first made the scandalous allegations along with related assertions about alleged misconduct by an FBI agent and a federal prosecutor.
Later, the alleged affair was cited as evidence of judicial bias in Canadian court proceedings that sought to win Chambers’ release. The allegations also were briefly a focus of the FBI in Miami, which appears to have done little to investigate them despite a referral from then-U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta.
The allegations, too, were the subject of tainted U.S. court proceedings before Judge Ungaro herself.
Records show that Chambers, acting as his own lawyer, sought a hearing in March 2012 after learning of Ungaro’s alleged “sexual affair” with William “Bill” Majcher, an important investigator in the case against him.
Judge Ungaro, however, dismissed the case without a hearing less than a month later. She did so even though Chambers’ petition was all about her alleged misconduct, and how her actions may have corrupted the trial or sentencing.
Further, Ungaro ruled after having twice before disqualified herself from hearing matters involving Chambers. Five months later, she would recuse herself a third time after Chambers raised the matter again.
JUDGE UNGARO ISN’T TALKING
Ungaro’s orders do not say why she recused herself, and she did not respond to detailed requests for comment by FloridaBulldog.org. Federal judicial canons, however, require judges to disqualify themselves in any proceeding in which their “impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”
Asked about the matter, Chief Judge K. Michael Moore declined to comment.
The story of the relationship between the federal judge and the Royal Canadian Mountie, and its possible impact on justice in the case of Martin Chambers, got limited media attention in Canada in 2012, but has remained largely under wraps in South Florida where Chambers was convicted in a high-profile FBI-led sting operation, “Bermuda Short,” that targeted money laundering and securities fraud.
While Ungaro would not comment, Majcher, who lives in Hong Kong and states on his Linkedin profile that he retired from the RCMP in 2007, denied any impropriety.
“I will be very clear…there was zero relationship between myself and Judge Ungaro during trial, or before sentencing,” Majcher said in an email. “For the record, I became friends with Judge Ungaro the year after the Chambers trial when I was in Miami for trial preparation on an unrelated accused in front of a different judge.”
FBI agents twice interviewed Judge Ungaro’s ex-husband, former Miami lobbyist Michael Benages, in July 2008. Among those agents was then Miami Special Agent-in-Charge Jonathan I. Solomon.
FBI 302 reports of those interviews, with some redactions, were released later to Benages in response to his Freedom of Information request. Benages provided copies to FloridaBulldog.org and other news organizations.
In an interview, former Miami U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta said Benages first came to him. “He did bring this to my attention and I referred him to the FBI to make sure it got seriously vetted,” said Acosta, who served from 2006 to 2009.
The trial of Martin Chambers on five counts of money laundering began on Aug. 21, 2003 and a jury found him guilty on all counts two weeks later. Judge Ungaro sentenced Chambers to 188 months in jail on December 5, 2003.
In an interview, Benages said he does not know precisely when the affair occurred, but believes it happened after the trial, but before sentencing. “But the courting started before,” he said.
BENAGES TALKS TO FBI
Benages told the FBI agents that around Christmas 2003, shortly before she moved out of their home, Ungaro admitted to an affair with a Mountie, who was a witness in a money laundering trial, calling it a “mistake.” Ungaro later told Benages the Mountie had informed her that an Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) and an FBI agent said Benages “was about to be indicted,” the report says.
Benages did not recall the Mountie’s last name. But he said Ungaro soon filed for divorce even though the story about his impending indictment proved to be untrue.
“Approximately three or four months later, [Name Redacted] told Benages that the [Redacted] admitted to her that the FBI and the AUSA had told him that it was all a joke and Benages was not really going to be indicted. [Redacted] stated that she knew who the FBI agent was, however, did not provide Benages with the name,” according to a July 30, 2008 FBI report.
Benages filled in the blanks in a recent interview. He said he told the FBI that it was Ungaro who told him that Mountie Majcher had informed her that talk of an indictment was a “joke.”
At the time, Benages didn’t know the names of either Majcher or Chambers and he wanted the FBI to investigate. The reports make clear, however, that the FBI was more interested in asking Benages about any corruption he might have witnessed during his work as a lobbyist.
“Why wasn’t this investigated more seriously?” asked Benages’ attorney Joseph Carballo.
Miami FBI spokesman Jim Marshall said, “We have no further comment/information on this matter.”
The FBI reports say Benages offered the “theory” that he was specifically targeted by the false story of his imminent indictment. Benages speculated to agents that it was Marcos Jimenez, Miami U.S. Attorney from 2002-2005, who was responsible.
Benages explained to the FBI that Jimenez had had trouble getting confirmed as U.S. Attorney because of an incident between Jimenez and his wife, and Jimenez knew that Benages was privy to an FBI background report about that incident.
“Benages stated that [Redacted] lied twice on his FBI report. Benages explained that the FBI report had been provided to his wife and that she had told him about the report in bed. Benages stated that he had not seen the FBI report, however, that Ursula told him that [Redacted] had denied in the report that he had beat his wife with a hammer, which had caused her to admit herself into the hospital under a false name,” the report says.
AN ATTEMPT TO INTIMIDATE?
“The FBI agent and assistant U.S. attorney knew about the inappropriate relationship and exploited it to cause a rift between my wife and myself and intimidate me into staying quiet about what I knew about their boss, Marcos Jimenez,” Benages said in related paperwork filed later with the Department of Justice.
Ungaro and Benages divorced in 2004. In August of that year, after Chambers appealed his conviction, Ungaro signed an “order of recusal as to Martin G. Chambers.” The case was reassigned to Miami U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez.
Court records show that Ungaro’s recusal didn’t keep her from ruling against Chambers three years later, on Aug. 27, 2007, after his Miami attorney, Gerald Houlihan, asked the court to vacate Chambers’ sentence.
Ungaro disqualified herself again six months later, Feb. 4, 2008, a few days after Houlihan asked the court for “compassion” and support for Chambers’ application to be transferred to a Canadian prison so he could “serve the remainder of his sentence close to his family.”
Ungaro again gave no reason for her recusal, but it caused the clerk’s office to reassign the case again, this time to Judge Cecilia Altonaga.
The twin recusals meant that two federal judges, Altonaga and Martinez, were now assigned to Chambers’ case. The unusual result: two separate judicial rulings on the same motion. Martinez denied the motion seeking support for a mercy transfer on Feb. 5, 2008. Altonaga denied it again on March 28, court records show.
Four years later, on March 26, 2012, Chambers went back to court as his own attorney after learning of Benages’ accusation that Judge Ungaro had had a “sexual affair” with Majcher “during the pendency of my criminal case.”
“The validity of the entire investigation was based on the credibility of RCMP Officer William Majcher, the individual who had this alleged relationship with the judge,” wrote Chambers. “It is absolutely essential that the petitioner be given a hearing to be able to establish the nature of the relationship between the trial court and the chief RCMP investigator, and the time-frame within which that relationship occurred.”
Like the prior motion to vacate sentence, Chamber’s motion citing newly discovered evidence was immediately given a new case number by the clerk’s office and assigned to Judge Ungaro.
Two days later Magistrate Patrick White recommended the motion be denied on technical grounds. On April 19, 2012, Ungaro adopted White’s recommendation and signed an order closing the case without a hearing. It was the second time she ruled against Chambers after disqualifying herself.
UNGARO UPHELD ON APPEAL
Ungaro’s ruling was upheld a week later by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel held that even if true “the newly discovered evidence” of a sexual affair between the trial judge and a government witness “has no bearing on Chambers’ actual guilt or innocence in the money-laundering offenses.”
The court did not address whether it was proper, or legal, for Judge Ungaro to rule in the case after having disqualified herself.
On May 29, 2012, again from his prison cell, Chambers petitioned the district court for what’s known as a writ of error coram nobis, claiming Ungaro was biased against him, the government failed to disclose its knowledge of the alleged affair and that he was denied due process.The clerk’s office again assigned the case to Ungaro despite her prior recusals.
Ungaro dated her third unexplained recusal order on Aug. 1, 2012, though it was not docketed until two days later. In between, Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Morales filed court papers opposing a hearing and calling the matter “a delayed regurgitation of gossip”.
Chambers’ “claim only rises to the level of hearsay that, even if true, would merely establish an appearance of bias or impropriety,” Morales wrote.
Magistrate White again recommended the case be dismissed. Judge Martinez adopted the recommendation and closed the case on Sept. 28, 2012.
While Chambers attempted to litigate in court, Benages pursued an unsuccessful $5.5 million damages claim at the Justice Department starting in 2009. The alleged damages included the cost of his divorce, the loss of marital assets and related health ills that led to “the demise of my lucrative lobbying business and consulting law practice.”
The complaints contain additional details, including Benages’ assertion that “in the second half of 2003” he and his wife dined with Majcher and another Mountie at a local restaurant. Before the dinner, he said, “Ursula received a gift of an authentic Royal Canadian Mounted Police hat.”
In other interviews, Benages narrowed the time of the dinner as in September or October of that year.
FBI “BLACK BAG OPERATIONS”?
Benages also accused the FBI in a July 2012 complaint of twice conducting “black bag operations” against him during the previous year “in preparation for what they expected would be litigation on my part.”
Benages claimed to have spotted an FBI car parked near his home in Coral Gables, then discovered that supporting documentation for his claim “had disappeared.” He said a similar incident occurred after he moved to Wilton Manors.
Benages’ lawyer said in a recent interview that about the same time documents relating to Benages that he kept stored on his computer also went missing.
“It could have been that they were wiped clean by mistake, but I doubt it,” said Joseph Carballo, who at the time had an office at 717 Ponce de Leon Boulevard in Coral Gables. “I didn’t realize it had happened until months later when Michael Benages asked me for a copy of the file and I went to look for it and it wasn’t there.”
“I recall seeing emails from his ex-wife where they were smoking gun type emails…that suggested, that kind of corroborated that she was having an affair with someone in the time frame that he’s talking about,” said Carballo.
Meanwhile, 75-year-old Martin Chambers remains at a low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Forrest City, Arkansas. His scheduled release date is Sept. 7, 2016.
Chambers’ attorney is John W. Conroy of Abbotsford, British Columbia. Conroy said recent efforts on Chambers’ behalf have focused on getting him transferred back to Canada rather than building a case for judicial bias.
“We were trying to find out what happened from the RCMP. We believe Majcher was disciplined in some way, but we were unable to get to the truth,” said Conroy.
Conroy said that both the U.S. and Canada have now agreed to transfer Chambers to Canada, where he would be eligible for immediate release under Canadian law. Chambers could be returned to Canada as soon as next month.