Federal prosecutors on Saturday disclosed a longtime bribery investigation of state judges in southern Florida and said a former top lawyer for Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega had worked undercover for the government during the inquiry. The prosecutors said that, as part of the investigation, federal and state law enforcement agents had posed as criminal defendants and that payoffs had been made to get their bail lowered, have evidence suppressed and gain confidential information.
People familiar with the case said the lawyer for Noriega, Raymond Takiff, had been involved in the corruption and had begun working for the government as an informer even while representing the general.
Claiming health problems, Takiff left Noriega's defense team shortly before the United States invaded Panama at the end of 1989.
One official said Saturday that in a sealed agreement on Nov. 20, 1989, Takiff admitted income tax violations and other illegal activities. This official indicated that among these activities was Takiff's serving as an intermediary between defendants and corrupt judges.
It is unclear whether he may have continued in this role when he later assisted federal agents.
Prosecutors and one of Noriega's lawyers both said they thought that Takiff's assistance to the government would have no impact on Noriega's trial, scheduled for Sept. 3.
The judicial corruption inquiry was first disclosed Saturday morning at a news conference in Miami, where U.S. Attorney Dexter W. Lehtinen and the state attorney for Dade County, Janet Reno, said they were announcing it because court-authorized searches were being conducted Saturday at various locations in the county.
A statement issued by the two prosecutors said, "The United States government never sought and never obtained privileged information regarding any criminal defendants who have been Takiff's clients, including General Manuel Noriega."
The prosecutors said that the federal judge hearing Noriega's case, William M. Hoeveler, had been informed of Takiff's role since January 1990, when Noriega was brought to the United States.