MIAMI -- A Colombian cocaine cartel may have paid $1.25 million to a witness in the trial of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega possibly in exchange for testimony against the deposed Panamanian dictator, federal prosecutors have learned.
An informer told the Drug Enforcement Administration that the Cali drug cartel paid the witness, Ricardo Bilonick, to testify about Noriega's ties to the rival Medellin cartel, with which Bilonick had worked, according to papers filed by government prosecutors in U.S. District Court here.
The testimony of Bilonick, a Panamanian lawyer and former diplomat, helped lead to Noriega's 1992 conviction for drug trafficking, on which he is serving a 40-year sentence in federal prison here.
The bribery allegation, about which the government says it first heard in September, became public last week when prosecutors replied in writing to Noriega's request for a new trial.
Prosecutors said that two months ago the informer told federal ++ drug agents that, as a condition of Bilonick's testimony, he had paid $250,000 directly to Bilonick and that certificates of deposit worth $1 million were placed in a safety deposit box at a Panamanian bank.
The informer, whom prosecutors have not identified, said the payments were made the day before Bilonick surrendered to U.S. authorities as an indicted co-defendant in the Noriega drug case.
He also said no government agents or prosecutors knew about the payments, which prosecutors said was confirmed a few weeks ago by a second informer who said he had overheard a conversation about the deal.
Federal prosecutors said the possible $1.25 million bribe was not sufficient to merit a new trial for Noriega.
"The government emphasizes that these allegations are simply that -- allegations," they wrote in the court papers which include affidavits by Bilonick and his lawyer in which they denied that the payments had occurred and Bilonick called the suggestion "idiotic."
Had such payments been revealed at trial, prosecutors said, they would have only served to impeach Bilonick's credibility as a witness, which they contended "was not the linchpin of the government's case."