With less than two months before R. Kelly’s federal trial in New York on charges of racketeering for allegedly running an “enterprise” that sex trafficked young women and underage girls, his legal team appears to be in shambles.
The R&B singer’s Chicago-based criminal defense lawyers Steve Greenberg and Michael Leonard filed a motion last week seeking to be removed from his defense team, claiming it had become “impossible” to represent Kelly due to clashes with co-counsel Nicole Blank Becker and Thomas A. Farinella. (Greenberg and Leonard are still representing the artist in a separate child pornography case in Illinois.)
But during a hearing on Thursday morning, Judge Ann Donnelly of the Eastern District of New York declared that she wasn’t interested in listening to the infighting on his team and had not yet decided if she would grant their motion to withdraw.
Instead, the hearing was devoted to deciding if Becker should be tossed from the case over a potential conflict of interest for regularly communicating with two of Kelly’s alleged victims, his former live-in girlfriend Joycelyn Savage, and a Jane Doe 5, as well as allegedly facilitating payments from Kelly to Savage.
Savage had been one of Kelly’s most prominent supporters, appearing alongside the singer at various court hearings and defending him during a sit-down interview with Gayle King. However, in a 2019 Patreon account purported to belong to Savage and promoted on her social media accounts, Savage declared that she was a victim. But it’s unclear if Savage is back in Kelly’s corner, as Kelly’s legal team indicated they might call her as a witness for the defense during the trial.
Jane Doe 5, whose protected identity was mistakenly revealed twice during the hearing by Kelly’s lawyers, was allegedly sexually abused by Kelly when she was underage in 2015, according to the charging indictment. Kelly is accused of making child pornography of her, as well as not disclosing that he had herpes while committing the statutory rape of her.
Becker, who has been on Kelly’s legal team since March 2019, admitted that she had talked to the women through text messages, phone calls, FaceTimes, and had escorted them to Kelly’s court hearings.
She was allegedly doing this while they were being represented by another attorney, Gloria Rodriguez, who claimed in a letter submitted to the court late on Wednesday that she specifically instructed Becker not to communicate with her clients. Becker denied that she had.
Over the course of the two-hour hearing, Judge Donnelly repeatedly had to remind Becker to refer to her client as “Mr. Kelly” instead of “Robert,” at times appearing frustrated with Becker skirting questions or giving confusing, rambling answers.
“Becker, who has been on Kelly’s legal team since March 2019, admitted that she had talked to the women through text messages, phone calls, FaceTimes, and had escorted them to Kelly’s court hearings.”
Ultimately, Judge Donnelly was satisfied that there was no major conflict of interest that would disqualify Becker from representing Kelly, although she did appoint an impartial lawyer to further explain to Kelly the possibilities of a conflict, so he could make an informed decision if he wished to have Becker continue to represent him.
Judge Donnelly also requested for Kelly, who appeared via video because he is incarcerated at a federal prison in downtown Chicago, to be brought to New York sooner rather than later, so the court could proceed in future hearings with him physically present.
With only a handful of weeks to go before the trial, where if convicted Kelly faces up to 20 years in prison, it doesn’t bode well for the 54-year-old to have his attorney quizzed on whether she should be removed from the case and to have his lawyers at war with each other.
Last week, Greenberg and Leonard argued they could no longer represent Kelly because Becker and New York-based Farinella were jockeying for a center-stage role in what will surely be a blockbuster case.
“Frankly, everyone wants to be first chair, everyone wants to do opening, everyone wants to do closing, and that just can’t be,” Greenberg previously told Judge Donnelly.
That issue was made worse by Becker and Farinella’s alleged “lack of experience and skill,” noting they had never tried a federal criminal case. Greenberg also made a thinly-veiled reference to Farinella’s mental health when he claimed that one of Kelly’s attorneys has “documented mental health issues” and couldn’t “deal with stress.”
Later that day, Greenberg remarked in a cryptic subtweet, “Sometimes you can’t save someone from themselves, no matter how hard you try… Sometimes people just won’t listen and there is nothing you can do.”
Greenberg and Leonard’s concerns about Becker and Farinella’s qualifications are due in part to Farinella’s history. Farinella previously worked as a bankruptcy lawyer and his only other big case was securing a slightly early release for mobster Salvatore “Sammy The Bull” Gravano in 2017, representing the infamous snitch after he was incarcerated.
Additionally, Farinella had his law license suspended in fall of 2011 after he was accused of neglecting “numerous client matters” and had misused a client’s credit card to make improper charges, according to New York records.
While Farinella was facing a disciplinary proceeding for those accusations, he claimed he was “suffering from a mental infirmity which made it impossible for him to defend himself,” which led to his license being immediately suspended on the grounds of disability.
A month after he was reinstated in October of 2013, Farinella agreed to allow the Attorney Grievance Committee (AGC) to reactivate its petition for reciprocal discipline for the misconduct allegations from 2011. In May 2014, the AGC determined there was misconduct and gave him a three-month suspension. However, because Farinella had already served a two-year suspension, he was immediately reinstated.
In Feb. 2015, the AGC alleged it had found additional instances of misconduct from Farinella between 2007 and 2011, filing 37 supplemental charges against him. A judge later granted a suspension and immediate reinstatement, noting how an advisor praised his rehabilitation efforts, as well as how he “expressed sincere remorse for his misconduct” and fully paid back his clients.
As for Becker, she too has little experience as a criminal defense lawyer at the federal level. Primarily representing clients who have been accused of sex crimes, she previously worked as an assistant prosecutor for Wayne and Macomb County in Michigan.
Becker was also wrapped up in an FBI bribery case against Kelly associate Richard Arline Jr., who pleaded guilty in February to trying to buy the silence of an alleged victim, willing to pay her up to $500,000 in exchange for not testifying against Kelly, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Arline had reportedly referenced Becker multiple times when speaking with the victim, who was named as Azriel Clary—Kelly’s former live-in girlfriend who has publicly accused him of abusing her and “brainwashing” her. Arline also called a number listed on Becker’s professional website three times between March 2020 and May 2020, court documents claim.
Arline told Clary in a recorded phone conversation that Becker was concerned that she had potentially damaging physical evidence against Kelly, according to records reviewed by the Chicago Tribune.
“I don’t know what the (expletive) you might got, some videos, some iPads, or whatever you might got… They just want that to disappear,” Arline reportedly told Clary. “You know what I’m sayin’?”
While this could present a possible conflict of interest for Becker if Clary is called to testify during the trial, the matter was not addressed during Thursday’s hearing.
In a joint statement provided to The Daily Beast by Farinella and Becker, they said, “Today’s hearing was not about Mr. Kelly’s choice of counsel, their skill, experience and/or their professional history rather it was a hearing to ensure there are no conflicts with counsel which should eliminate the need for any further speculation.”