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Archive for Tuesday, December 7, 2004

Judge banishes defense attorney

Closing arguments set for today

December 7, 2004

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— An angry federal judge ordered an attorney defending former Westar Energy Inc. vice president Douglas Lake to stay out of the courtroom for the rest of the trial, after what the judge called his hostile conduct.

U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson, who has quarreled with defense attorneys throughout the trial of Lake and former Westar chief executive David Wittig, accused attorney Christopher Wilson of being disrespectful, disruptive and of trying to intimidate her with icy glares.

"I can't tell you how many times I have come close to citing him for contempt," Robinson said.

The ruling came after attorneys for Lake rested their case Monday. Closing arguments are scheduled for today.

Lake and Wittig are charged with attempting to loot Westar, the largest electric utility in Kansas. Each man faces 40 counts and a minimum of 10 years in prison.

The problems between Robinson and Wilson started Monday morning, when the judge stopped proceedings to ask him if he had "a problem." Wilson replied that he had a lot of problems. When Robinson told him he was behaving disrespectfully, Wilson stood and disagreed.

After Robinson read jury instructions Monday afternoon, Rich Hathaway, an assistant U.S. attorney, asked that the number of attorneys at the defense table be limited during today's closing arguments because of what he said were problems with conduct at the defense tables.

Robinson agreed, saying Wilson had been "very disruptive" during the trial. She also accused him of going behind the courtroom law clerks' desk, where he could have observed notes written from Robinson to courtroom staff.

Robinson also criticized Edward Little, lead attorney for the Lake defense team, saying she had never seen attorneys who conducted themselves the way the men had during the trial.

Also Monday, Robinson denied Wittig's and Lake's motion for acquittal and dismissed a motion by Wittig to exclude evidence regarding the tax treatment of personal use of Westar corporate jets.

Lake, who began testifying Nov. 26, was on the stand for only 15 minutes Monday morning. He testified that he was not aware of a lawsuit filed by Westar in 2001 that challenged the Kansas Corporation Commission's jurisdiction over a planned spin-off of Westar's unregulated assets.

In the 40-count indictment, the government contends that the two men stood to make millions on the planned creation of a new company, Westar Industries, through a merger with Public Service Co. of New Mexico.

The government also believes Wittig and Lake planned to saddle the regulated utility with all the debt, and then take new positions and a substantial ownership stake in the unregulated business, Westar Industries.

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