Does disbarred Metro East attorney Amiel Cueto still have the political juice to "broker power?"
That's one of the many questions raised by a defamation lawsuit the disgraced attorney filed last November against The Madison-St. Clair Record, a small daily that is funded in part by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and covers all things judicial in Illinois' Madison and St. Clair counties.
The lawsuit ostensibly seeks reparations for what Cueto claims were the paper's libelous statements, but in a bizarre turn, the case now threatens to shine a troubled light on the Metro East's tight-knit legal community. The actions of several St. Clair County judges have come to bear on the case, and many of the jurists may be subpoenaed to submit depositions.
The fracas began when Cueto took umbrage at an item published in the Record's January 30, 2006, Dicta column. In the non-bylined column titled "Pulling strings?" the paper wrote that a source had spied Cueto at a meeting of St. Clair County judges. "Once one of the most powerful lawyers in Southern Illinois, Cueto was said to have 'owned' fifteen of St. Clair County's seventeen judges in the mid-1990s," read the offending column.
"But Cueto, hardly destitute, can still broker power. Which explains why he still garners ink. So color us unsurprised that a Dicta source spied Amiel Cueto at a meeting of St. Clair County judges at Belleville's Washington Street Grille on Jan. 19."
The article's veracity soon came under fire. Cueto, who returned home in 2005 after spending six years in prison on an obstruction of justice conviction for his actions during the racketeering trial of his former client Thomas Venezia, has denied attending a judges' meeting. One month after the Record ran the item, the paper received a letter which refuted that Cueto had been present at the gathering.
"There was no meeting of Circuit Court Judges on January 19. Whatever meeting you are referring to, Amiel Cueto has never been invited or attended a Circuit Judge meeting," read the letter in part. The letter was signed by St. Clair County judges Jan Fiss, John Baricevic, Annette Eckert, Robert LeChien, William Norton, Michael O'Malley, Milton Wharton and Lloyd Cueto Amiel Cueto's brother.
Though the paper published the letter, Cueto wasn't satisfied. Ten months after the column appeared, Cueto who during Venezia's trial reportedly published the East Side Review, a tabloid newspaper that once characterized an assistant U.S. attorney as a "strutting, bald-headed midget with severe psycho/sexual disorders" filed a lawsuit claiming the Dicta column had defamed him.
Cueto further charged that the column was libelous "in that it accused Amiel Cueto of a criminal conspiracy to commit official misconduct," and "of being at, or participating in, or brokering power during, a meeting of St. Clair County judges."
The Record has mounted a vigorous defense, filing two motions to get the case thrown out. According to court documents, Cueto responded to the paper's first motion by stating in part that the column was "made up." St. Clair County Judge Vincent Lopinot accepted Cueto's argument and denied the paper's request.
Now attorneys for the Record have again petitioned the court. But this time they come armed with a sworn affidavit from the source for the original Dicta column: former St. Clair County Judge William Norton, who says he was present at the judges' meeting when, he alleges, Cueto stopped in.
"I attended a meeting of St. Clair County circuit judges that was held at the Washington Street Grille in Belleville on January 18, 2006," reads Norton's affidavit. "Amiel Cueto stopped by the room, before the meeting had ended, and exchanged pleasantries with judges attending the meeting."
In other words, Norton alleges that the judges did have a meeting. He alleges that Cueto did stop by, and that the column's only factual error was that the paper was off on the meeting's date by one day.
"I was subsequently requested to sign a letter to the editor of the Madison-St. Clair Record that the St. Clair County circuit judges were sending," continues Norton's affidavit. "To the best of my knowledge, the statements in the letter were literally correct."
"I don't know what to make of the [judges'] letter," says attorney Michael Pope of the Chicago law firm McDermott Will & Emery LLP, which is representing the Record. "Is it correct but slightly misleading to say that on the nineteenth no one had a meeting there? That's something that people will have to judge for themselves."
The Record's motion to dismiss the case was argued before Judge Lopinot last Thursday. The judge, stating that his father was one of the fifteen "owned" judges mentioned in the column, recused himself from the case. A new judge is expected to be assigned this week.