Unconnected dots 

Bill Campbell and Al Capone have a verdict in common

Let's see if we've got this straight:

For weeks, the Bill Campbell jury heard testimony by city contractors who provided bribes to be passed on to the mayor. At least two ex-Campbell cronies recounted how they personally delivered said bribes. His mistresses described the high-flying mayor as staying in the best hotels, gambling his evenings away and always flush with cash.

And, finally, neither Campbell's bank records, tax returns nor his own big-league defense team could offer insight into where the mayor got so much bling.

But, while jurors agreed that Campbell had failed to report tens of thousands of dollars of suspicious income, they couldn't seem to figure out where any of that money might have come from.

On Friday, the Campbell corruption trial ended with a whimper rather than a bang, as the leader of the sleaziest City Hall in living memory was convicted only of tax fraud, not the myriad bribery and racketeering charges the feds had brought against him.

The jury tossed aside accusations that Hizzoner had taken $50,000 from a strip-club owner hoping for a liquor license; orchestrated the funneling of blatantly crooked contributions to his re-election fund; and secretly signed an $80 million increase for the city's water contractor.

"There's no doubt I've been vindicated as to the charges of corruption," Campbell told a horde of reporters outside the federal courthouse minutes after the verdict was announced. But it wasn't the gloating, defiant Campbell of old. His voice scarcely lifted above a whisper. He was downbeat, subdued, visibly disappointed.

And why not? This was a guy who clearly had expected to get off scot-free, to coast through his legal troubles by recasting himself as a defender of civil rights and implying that prosecutors were driven by personal vendettas.

Campbell had relied on some of the same populist tactics that had served him well as mayor. His former director of community affairs, Michael Langford, would round up the same crowd of Campbell supporters in a black Chevy Tahoe and ferry them to the courthouse every morning so the benches would be lined with sympathetic faces. Michael Coleman, Campbell's personal attorney, kept a blog, www.campbellview.com, in which he offered his own spin on witness testimony. And on Sundays during his trial, the ex-mayor himself spoke at various black churches around Atlanta.

Campbell's overall strategy, some trial-watchers speculated, was to use community outreach to indirectly sway -- through friends or family members -- that single juror necessary to avoid a unanimous vote to convict. The odds seemed to be on the side of the defense: There are no doubt many older black Atlantans who emerged from the Jim Crow era distrustful of the establishment government and willing to give black elected officials -- in the words of U.S. Attorney David Nahmias, in explaining the mixed verdict -- the "benefit of a doubt."

In bringing ex-Mayor Andrew Young to the stand to vouch for Campbell and in repeatedly reminding the jury of how a 7-year-old Campbell "began a life of public service" by single-handedly integrating the schools of his native Raleigh, his defense team seemed less concerned with the facts surrounding the charges than in finding a juror willing to buy into the myth of Bill Campbell as another in a long line of persecuted black leaders.

"This is not an investigation, but an inquisition," defense attorney Fred Orr told jurors during closing arguments Wednesday.

As we now know, it didn't come close to a hung jury. After spending nearly eight weeks trapped in a courtroom, those 12 folks were so eager to peel out of there Friday that, according to the AJC, they didn't take the time to realize that a bribe received "on or about" June 9 might have occurred June 8.

If they had, it might have been a different outcome for Campbell. But then again, maybe not.

The fact that several Campbell cronies admitted on the witness stand -- and in earlier guilty pleas -- that they had solicited bribes on the mayor's behalf; that testimony described some of the bribe money being passed on to the mayor; and that many crooked contractors actually took home the city contracts they sought to buy wasn't enough to allow this jury to connect the dots.

Even after listening to more than 70 prosecution witnesses and reviewing mountains of evidence in the form of financial forms, bank statements and city contracts, jurors seemed disinclined to convict without videotapes showing the mayor pocketing wads of cash.

In wrapping up their case, federal prosecutors relied on a cheesy visual aid, a giant puzzle that they put together, piece-by-piece, as they talked. The metaphor might have had more impact if, when completed, the puzzle picture had shown the poker-playing dogs.

The only racketeering count that stuck nailed Campbell for cheating his own supporters. He had continued to collect thousands in donations to "retire campaign debt" after winning a second term, but instead spent the proceeds on sports tickets, little Billy's cell phone bill and other private expenses. Also implicated in these shenanigans is Steve Labovitz, Campbell's close friend, former law partner and first-term chief of staff, one of the few top-ranking administration officials to somehow escape indictment.

That single guilty verdict on racketeering charges was not enough to activate the government's RICO case against Campbell, although it likely will play a role in his sentencing. Legal experts have ballparked the mayor's expected prison time at somewhere between 10 and 27 months -- assuming, of course, that Campbell doesn't seek an appeal.

In the end, the jury's decision to vote yes on tax evasion relied less on details than on common sense. After all, how does a guy who spends hours at the gaming tables, juggles two mistresses and jets off on vacation every few days manage to get by for a whole year on bank withdrawals totaling $69?

The best explanation the defense could muster for how Campbell was able to afford such an immodest lifestyle was that he was living off his poker winnings. If he was that good a gambler, there'd already be a video game titled "Bill's Mississippi High-Stakes Junket."

It's arguable that Bill Campbell has created a working template for corrupt officials: Avoid leaving a paper trail; use trusted henchmen to solicit, collect and deliver bribes; and use every opportunity to denounce your accusers as racists scheming to bring down strong black leaders, such as when he memorably labeled his critics "Mr. Charlie."

"In the African-American community, Campbell is still a very popular mayor and he effectively played the race card, so reaction around Atlanta is very mixed," says a black Atlanta City Council member who asked not to be identified. "That's why you won't hear too many black elected officials going on the record with pronouncements about this verdict."



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