Tamper Tantrum

Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick White manages to overcome all the starch stiffening his dress shirt, lean back in his chair, and actually appear relaxed for one moment, however brief, of this long April day. He is startled back into bolt-upright position by his own voice, recorded ten months earlier, talking back at him from two speakers on a nearby table in a federal courtroom. It is a tape of White's closing argument in a money-laundering case. "What we are relying on in this case is tapes," White hears himself declare. "Tapes don't lie. Tapes do not lie."

Though that jury agreed the government's clandestine recordings of defendant George Gandelman provided enough evidence to convict Gandelman of four of six counts of federal currency law violations, White is taking little comfort in the July 1993 verdict. Gandelman, a 32-year-old Colombian-born gallery owner, is not in jail but here in the courtroom, making a novel challenge to the conviction: He alleges that federal agents tampered with the tapes that were so central to the government's case.

At the request of Gandelman and his attorney Leonard Sands, technicians have set up sound equipment in the courtroom, which, to White's evident chagrin, they have used to reprise the prosecutor's closing argument. White is even less amused moments later, when that same sound equipment, connected to a computer loaded with Sound Designer tape-editing software, transforms his statement into its antithesis. "What we are relying on in this case is tapes," his voice repeats. "Tapes lie. Tapes do lie."

That is what Gandelman has maintained ever since his conviction. "I know that the tapes used to convict me were tampered with," he says. "And I wonder how many other innocent people have been sent to jail using the same type of bogus evidence." After months of court filings and disputes with federal agents, last November he and Sands were finally able to gain access to nearly every taped conversation between himself and government agents and informers. And now, at this two-day evidentiary hearing, they are being given the chance to make their argument before U.S. Magistrate Linnea Johnson.

If Gandelman and Sands can convince Johnson that the government's tapes were doctored, the magistrate will almost certainly recommend to the judge who tried the case, C. Clyde Atkins, that the defendant be given a new trial. If, on the other hand, Johnson finds no problem with the tapes, Gandelman, who faces a sentence of five to eight years, will go to jail.

On this day Sands will call three witnesses, all of whom possess extensive experience editing audio soundtracks for the movie and television industries. The three men, John Thomas, Rick Raymond, and Lenny Rabinowitz, have independently analyzed the recordings. Each will testify that at least three of four tapes of face-to-face meetings between Gandelman and his accusers are not original recordings. The tapes, they will argue, are edited copies. Each expert will point out apparent splices at precisely the same places. It is at those spots, Gandelman claims, that he made comments -- about the necessity of reporting currency transactions to the U.S. government, for example -- that would have exonerated him at trial.

On one side of the courtroom sit White and three federal agents -- Kurt Hartwell of the IRS and Timothy Shaw of the FBI, who led the Gandelman probe from the fall of 1991 to the following spring, and Bruce Koenig, an FBI audiotape analyst. All smile smugly as the defense's first witness, a ponytailed John Thomas, takes the stand and describes himself as an audio engineer with twelve years of studio experience. "Throughout that time I have been recording, editing, and mixing sound on a daily basis," he says. His mention of some work he just completed for KC and the Sunshine Band draws more smirks from the federal agents.

Before questioning Thomas, Sands hands him a laser pointer he purchased at the Sharper Image, which Thomas will direct across the room from the witness stand to a large-screen television set. The TV screen displays a visual representation of sound waves (or "wave forms") generated by a recorded segment of an April 1992 conversation that took place in Gandelman's car, between the gallery owner and FBI agent Louis Reveiz. Working undercover as the wealthy son of a Latin American businessman, Reveiz is heard complaining about Miami's traffic problem. "The...the United States in general...in general it seems that everything is fucked up," Reveiz's voice says in Spanish. On the television screen, the statement appears as two long horizontal lines, each representing one channel of the stereo recording, that are actually hundreds of bunched vertical lines of different heights.

At Thomas's request, a man operating the system moves a computer mouse, and Reveiz's statement is heard again at a slower speed. At the point between Reveiz's repetition of the phrase "in general," the vertical lines representing the sound wave shorten considerably. The visual representation, Thomas testifies, confirms what he's hearing: a splice. "This is a very bad spot," he says. "If I made an edit like that in my business, I would be fired."