CHICAGO — One of the attorneys singer R. Kelly has selected to represent him at his upcoming racketeering trial in New York is potentially conflicted because of her connections to an alleged victim in the case who was part of an FBI bribery sting last year, the Tribune has learned.
The issue involving attorney Nicole Blank Becker is likely to be a focal point of an unusual hearing Thursday in Brooklyn, where U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly is expected to notify Kelly of any conflicts of interest Becker may have so the singer can make an informed decision about his legal representation, two sources told the Tribune.
Part of Becker’s potential conflict involves an investigation into Richard Arline Jr., a self-described cousin of Kelly’s who was charged last year with attempting to pay up to $500,000 to an alleged victim in the racketeering case to keep her from testifying.
While the charges do not name the victim, details provided in court records show it was Azriel Clary, Kelly’s former girlfriend who is referred to as Jane Doe #5 in the indictment against the singer.
Becker previously worked with Clary when Clary was still a vocal supporter of Kelly’s. In fact, after Kelly’s arrest in July 2019, Becker showed up for a bond hearing at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse with Clary and Kelly’s other girlfriend at the time, Jocelyn Savage. Becker has also provided statements to the media on Clary’s and Savage’s behalf.
That could be an issue since Clary is expected to testify at the upcoming trial. Becker’s dealings with Savage, who remains a Kelly supporter, could also be problematic if Savage were called as a defense witness.
The issues could prompt the judge to boot Becker from the case, though that would seem unlikely as long as Kelly is willing to waive the potential conflicts. Another remedy for the judge would be to bar Becker from participating in Clary’s cross-examination or any direct questioning of Savage should the defense call her.
Clary lived with Kelly in his condo in Chicago’s Trump Tower before his arrest but decided to cooperate with authorities in early 2020, records show. Months later, she notified the FBI that Arline first reached out to her about a possible payoff, court records show.
At the direction of the FBI, she recorded numerous phone calls with him about who was behind the offer and how much it would be.
Among those Arline was talking to during the investigation was a person identified in court records only as Individual 4 and described as an attorney who represented Kelly on various matters. Sources said individual 4 was Becker.
In one recorded conversation, Arline told Clary that Individual 4 and other Kelly associates he was dealing with were worried she “got some (expletive)” that could be damaging to his case.
“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. You know what I’m sayin’?” Arline told Clary in the call, court records show.
The indictment filed against Arline last August stated that he called a number listed on Individual 4′s website three times between March 2020 and May 2020, though those calls were not recorded.
Arline pleaded guilty to bribery in February and is awaiting sentencing, records show. No money ever changed hands, and no one other than Arline was criminally charged as part of the scheme.
Asked in court to say in his own words what he did, Arline said that he and another person had offered money to the victim “if she did not go forward with her complaint or testimony against Robert Kelly, or give electronic devices in the (investigation of) Kelly,” according to a transcript of the plea hearing.
Becker did not respond to emails and calls seeking comment.
Donnelly scheduled the hearing over Becker’s potential conflicts after Kelly’s two Chicago-based attorneys abruptly withdrew from the case two months before the blockbuster trial was set to begin in Brooklyn.
At a hearing held by telephone last week, Kelly told the judge he wished to terminate attorneys Steven Greenberg and Michael Leonard. Instead, the singer said he’s opted to go with Becker, who is based in Michigan, and another member of the legal team, Thomas Farinella of New York.
The lawyers will be present in Donnelly’s courtroom for the hearing. The judge had wanted Kelly brought to New York so he could attend in person as well, but U.S. marshals couldn’t get him there in time so instead he’ll participate via a video link. The singer has been held in the federal jail in downtown Chicago since his arrest.
Greenberg and Leonard have previously said they had concerns about the backgrounds of both Farinella and Becker, neither of whom has ever tried a federal criminal case.
Filings detailing the potential conflicts have been kept under seal.
Kelly, 54, is set to go to trial Aug. 9 in Brooklyn on racketeering charges alleging he ran a criminal enterprise that recruited women and underage girls for illegal sexual contact, then isolated and threatened them to keep them under control. Jury questionnaires are set to go out to a pool of hundreds of potential jurors next month.
Kelly is also set for trial in September in Chicago’s federal court. He is charged here with numerous sex abuse-related counts, including allegations he conspired with two former employees to rig his 2008 child pornography trial in Cook County by paying off witnesses and victims to change their stories.
Other indictments alleging sexual abuse by Kelly brought in Cook County in February 2019 have yet to be scheduled for trial.