MARQUETTE - An evidentiary hearing is scheduled for today in U.S. District Court in Marquette for two Marquette residents who contend they had ineffective legal counsel during their July 2010 jury trial.
Scott Edward Sippola, 34, and Allison Lenore Coss, 27, were convicted and later sentenced to four years in federal prison for trying to extort $680,000 from television and Broadway actor John Stamos.
Sippola and Coss allege their attorneys provided ineffective assistance by advising the defendants to decline a plea agreement and instead go to trial.
Sippola was represented at trial by attorney Sarah Henderson of the law firm of Casselman and Henderson of Marquette.
"As a consequence of her bad advice, upon which I relied, I did not accept the plea offer and went to trial," Sippola said in an affidavit.
Coss' trial attorney was Frank Stupak Jr. of Escanaba.
"I feel that if my attorney truly had my best interest at heart, he would have explained the long odds I faced at trial, the severe sentencing exposure and counseled me to accept the plea offer," Coss said in an affidavit.
The ineffective counsel claim - related to plea deal discussions - is the sole issue remaining to be decided from motions filed last November by Coss and Sippola asking to have their sentences vacated and that they be resentenced or released from prison.
In July, additional ineffective counsel claims from the motions were dismissed by U.S. District Court Judge R. Allan Edgar, who presided at the 2010 Coss-Sippola jury trial in Marquette.
In his July orders, Edgar reserved ruling on the final claim "because there are genuine issues of material fact in dispute." He ordered today's evidentiary hearing be held where testimony from Henderson and Stupak is expected.
Edgar said a final judgment will be entered after he decides the outstanding claim.
Government attorneys wanted the judge to deny the defendants' original motions saying the claims and affidavits relied on "mistaken interpretations of the law, state conclusions rather than facts upon which this court could rely and are generally contradicted by the record."
Both Coss and Sippola claim they would have accepted a plea deal.
"There were various offers at various times ranging from two years incarceration all the way down to a misdemeanor and probation," Coss said in her affidavit.
Coss had met Stamos at a club in Florida in 2004. She and a girlfriend attended a party in Stamos' hotel room. Photographs of Coss, Stamos and others were taken at the party.
Coss and Stamos exchanged email addresses and corresponded over the next several years. She visited Stamos in Chicago in 2005 while the actor was filming a television show.
Coss and Sippola began dating in 2008. Sippola saw the photographs of Coss and Stamos from Florida and suggested the two try to sell the pictures to the actor.
Through the use of two fictitious email personas, the two defendants contacted Stamos and claimed they had some "bad" photos showing the actor with strippers and cocaine. They offered to sell the pictures to Stamos before approaching the tabloid press. No compromising photographs were ever produced.
Stamos reported the situation to his attorney, who contacted the FBI.
Coss and Sippola were arrested in December 2009 after they went to Sawyer International Airport to pick up money from a Stamos-police go-between. The cash they sought was to be used to pay off Sippola's house in Marquette Township.
The two defendants were indicted in May 2010 on one count of conspiracy to extort money by use of interstate communications (e-mail) and two counts of transmission of interstate communications of threat to injure the reputation of another with intent to extort money.
In October 2010, Sippola and Coss were sentenced to serve four years on the first count and two years concurrently on each of the two remaining convictions.
"I was told by my attorney, the prosecutors and the FBI that if I said we had destroyed the subject photos they would offer me a two-year plea agreement and I would never see prison," Sippola said in his affidavit.
Both Coss and Sippola allege that at various times during the plea negotiations, their attorneys wanted them to turn on each other by giving false information to the government.
They also claim that in discussing the plea offer, their attorneys never told them they could still challenge certain issues on appeal even if they accepted the deal.
Sippola will be represented at the hearing by Mark Dobias of Sault Ste. Marie and Coss' attorney is Thomas Patrick Clement of East Lansing.
Coss and Sippola - who have been serving their sentences in minimum security prison facilities in California and Minnesota, respectively - appealed their convictions to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Ohio on several claims. In April 2012, the appellate court upheld those lower court jury convictions.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.