LAS VEGAS - Should the Clark County District Attorney's Office be removed from a case, now that one of its prosecutors is married to the target of an FBI investigation?
That's the question facing a district court judge.
It's a case filed by a convicted pimp serving a life term. Raymond Sharpe wants a new trial. Plus, he is asking that the DA's office be disqualified from his case because of a romantic relationship between the prosecutor and the detective who worked to put him away.
That former cop is now the focus of an FBI investigation into police corruption. The I-Team first broke the story late last year.
Back when Chris Baughman was Metros' star vice detective, he often appeared in front of television cameras to describe his latest bust. At his side, was Deputy District Attorney Liz Mercer, the lead prosecutor in many of Baughman's biggest cases.
Fast forward six years. Chris Baughman is no longer a detective. Instead he is the focus of an ongoing FBI investigation into police corruption, and he is married to the same Liz Mercer, who still works for the DA.
Is that relationship enough of a reason to remove the DA's office from attempts by convicted pimp Raymond Sharpe to get a new trial? That was the focus of a highly-charged hearing Monday before Judge Elissa Cadish who began by speculating about what the FBI might be doing.
"Apparently, there is some sort of investigation. I'm not aware of the status of the investigation," Judge Cadish said.
Over the next 90 minutes though, the court learned that, not only is the investigation ongoing, but that both attorneys in the room had been interviewed by federal agents.
Sharpe's attorney Jonathan MacArthur said his client was also interviewed by agents back in February. MacArthur got the call late last week.
"What I learned was I was one of the last people they wanted to interview before taking the next step, whatever that was. They had already interviewed attorneys in the DA's office," MacArthur said.
This is the first time the public has learned that prosecutors have been interviewed by the FBI in the corruption case.
Since November, when the I-Team first revealed the existence of an FBI investigation, the DA's office has downplayed the story. At a hearing for Raymond Sharpe in February, the prosecutor at the time asserted that probe was done.
"Although there was an FBI investigation, it was no error, no charges were ever filed against Detective Baughman, things are being said about people that I think are untrue so I would ask that this be sealed," said Chief Deputy District Attorney Lisa Luzaich.
Then, a brief was written by a law clerk in the DA's office, signed by a different lawyer, and defended by a third in court, arguing that Liz Mercer's personal relationship with Detective Baughman became known in the office in 2014, long after their case against Sharpe was over.
The motion admits the FBI launched an investigation but then belittled the I-Teams news reports, calling them an "ever pressing search for scandal," based on unnamed sources and characterized "as an inflammatory attempt at a conspiracy theory."
But at the Monday hearing, prosecutor Noreen DeMonte, who is not only a close friend with Liz Mercer but was second prosecutor on the Raymond Sharpe case, told the judge that she too had been interviewed by the FBI. She says she told agents that as far as she knew, Mercer and Baughman were not having an affair at the time the case against Raymond Sharpe was being put together.
"I was unaware of any relationship at the time of the trial," DeMonte said. "I was told in Feb. of 2014 and immediately Ms. Mercer was walled off the case."
DeMonte says she was not present for the February hearing in Sharpe's case because someone didn't put it on her calendar. What about the remark that the FBI investigation is over?
"I'm not sure why another DA was here. I saw it on the news and it's not what I would have said," DeMonte said.
MacArthur noted the DA's office has repeatedly been dismissive about the FBI corruption investigation and that there is no way the office can be straightforward on Sharpe.
"The state can't say this with a straight face. Liz is still in the office. Ms. DeMonte and her are still friends. No one wants bad things to happen to Liz to the extent they can minimize that harm, to her and to them, the court should expect that's what they will do," MacArthur said.
Judge Cadish says she will issue a decision soon but wants more time to consider the arguments.
No charges have been filed as a result of the FBI investigation.