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A Federal Prosecutor Listened To Multiple Attorney-Client Phone Calls, Evidence Shows

Dan Margolies
KCUR 89.3
At issue at a hearing concluding today is whether prosecutors accessed recorded phone calls made at the Leavenworth Detention Center, pictured here.

A former federal prosecutor listened to multiple recorded calls between an inmate at Leavenworth Detention Center and her attorneys, documents disclosed at an evidentiary hearing on Thursday showed.

The explosive revelations prompted the Federal Public Defender to file a motion on Friday asking for court permission to disclose the evidence “to the appropriate disciplinary authorities.”

The evidence surfaced on the sixth day of testimony at a hearing on attorney-client recordings at Leavenworth, better known as CCA, and whether federal prosecutors made use of them. The Federal Public Defender is seeking to hold the U.S. Attorney’s office in Kansas in contempt after it stopped cooperating with an investigation by a special master appointed to look into the issue.

Credit YouTube
Chief U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson, who is hearing evidence in the case.

The public defender subpoenaed more than a dozen current and former prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s office to testify at the hearing, which is scheduled to conclude today. U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson, who has been hearing the evidence, will then decide whether and how to mete out punishment.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has denied that it accessed attorney-client recordings except in a couple of isolated instances, which it says were inadvertent. But documents produced in response to a subpoena by David R. Cohen, the special master appointed by Robinson, showed that former federal prosecutor Tanya Treadway listened in on more than a dozen attorney-client calls in one case alone.

Credit David R. Cohen
David R. Cohen, the special master appointed to look into the recordings of attorney-client phone calls and meetings at Leavenworth.

Treadway, who retired a year ago, was called to the witness stand by the Federal Public Defender on Thursday. Confronted with her own handwritten notes containing details of phone conversations between Michelle Reulet, a Leavenworth inmate who was facing drug charges, and her attorneys, Treadway offered various, sometimes contradictory explanations.

Multiple explanations

The calls weren’t privileged, she said. Or the recordings weren’t important. Or they weren’t protected because a third, non-lawyer party participated in the call. Or they didn’t concern the Reulet case. Or they weren’t protected by attorney-client privilege because the recorded subject matter involved a civil case, not a criminal one.

Credit Stinson Leonard Street
U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree asked Treadway whether, as an officer of the court, she had listened to recordings of attorney-client phone calls.

But her testimony directly contradicted her statement before the judge overseeing Reulet’s drug case, Daniel D. Crabtree, who asked her during a hearing in 2016 whether, “as an officer of the court,” she had listened to recorded attorney-client calls.   

Other than to identify who was participating in the call, Treadway told Crabtree she had not.

Under questioning by Branden Bell, an assistant federal public defender, Treadway, who testified Thursday from a wheelchair because of a broken foot, acknowledged the handwritten notes were hers but denied she had infringed on the attorney-client privilege.

“Do you recall telling Judge Crabtree it’s a scary state of affairs when a court can’t rely on your word as your bond?” Bell asked Treadway.

“Yes,” Treadway responded.

“So do I,” Bell said and then sat down.

Even the lawyer representing the U.S. Attorney’s Office had difficulty squaring Treadway’s assurance to Crabtree with her testimony on Thursday.

Steven D. Clymer, a federal prosecutor from New York who was appointed by the U.S. Justice Department to represent its interests, asked Treadway how she reconciled what she told Crabtree with her detailed notes of the conversations between Reulet and her attorneys.

Treadway responded that the calls were neither privileged nor protected by the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the right to counsel in criminal prosecutions.

She added that when she told Crabtree she hadn’t listened to the calls, “those calls were unimportant.”  

'It's despicable'

Melanie Morgan, who represented Reulet in the drug case, testified that, contrary to Treadway’s assertions, the calls Treadway listened to involved the criminal case at hand.

Credit Morgan Pilate
Lawyer Melanie Morgan, who represented a client detained at Leavenworth.

In a phone interview on Friday, Morgan said she was extremely upset by Treadway’s testimony.

“The reality is that by listening to those phone calls, she was able to gain an unfair tactical advantage against a criminally accused person,” Morgan said. “And that is absolutely wrong. It’s despicable, it is shameful and it should not be tolerated.”

“I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” Morgan added. “There are a lot of United States attorneys in both the District of Kansas and the Western District of Missouri that I am glad are on the other side doing the work that needs to be done. And I have no quarrel with those individuals.

“But when we find people like Tanya Treadway who are so willing to compromise ethics, they are so willing to go to such lengths … to eavesdrop on phone calls and then lie about it, that can't be tolerated.”

After pleading to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, Reulet was sentenced last year to five years in prison for selling designer drugs. She's scheduled to be released in October 2020, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  

Treadway was a federal prosecutor for 27 years before her retirement. She received her law degree from the University of Kansas in 1987 and clerked for then-Chief Judge Earl O'Connor of the U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kansas. She could not be reached for comment.

Disciplinary referral

In its motion Friday, the Federal Public Defender did not identify who was the object of its possible disciplinary complaint. But given the motion’s timing and the materials it cited in the motion, it was clear that Treadway was whom it had in mind.

The brief motion asked Judge Robinson for permission to disclose “certain materials produced as part of this litigation to the appropriate disciplinary authorities.” The materials, including Treadway’s notes, were produced under a protective order, which is why the public defender needs Robinson’s permission to disclose them in a disciplinary proceeding.

Earlier Thursday, Mike Warner, who served as First Assistant U.S. Attorney for just over three years before resigning in October 2013, offered scathing testimony about his former employer, describing a prosecutorial culture at the U.S. Attorney’s Office that was “heavy-handed in its ways.”

“I attempted in every way I could to interrupt and change this culture and I failed,” Warner testified.

Warner said his attempts to rein in a “one-size-fits-all, punishment-to-the-max” culture  met with “obfuscation and obstruction” from career prosecutors whom he said disrespected and threatened him.

“I had no power whatsoever, no respect,” Warner said. “In essence, it was the inmates running the jail type of office.”

Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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