The sad truth of the case against Bill Campbell is that, when it comes time for a verdict in what promises to be one of the most lurid trials in recent Atlanta memory, the evidence may be beside the point.
Over the next six to eight weeks in federal court, it's expected that the ex-mayor's old cronies will sing their hearts out on the witness stand, former city officials will paint dark pictures of Campbell's heavy-handed style of politics, and federal prosecutors will bury the jury under truckloads of documents they claim show crooked contracts and fraudulent campaign contributions -- when they're not enumerating Campbell's alleged harem of girlfriends.
But barring any unexpected courtroom revelations, some wonder whether the outcome of the trial will hinge on last week's jury selection, which ended with a panel of seven blacks and five whites. Five of the jurors are women.
While waiting to be let in for the trial's opening moments Mon., Jan. 23, a clutch of Campbell supporters began singing "We Shall Overcome" until a bailiff made them quit. In his opening remarks, defense attorney Billy Martin described his client as a champion of affirmative action and warned jurors, "I hope it doesn't offend you that we have to talk about issues of race."
The real question may not be what the feds have up their sleeves, but whether it's possible in Atlanta to find 12 unanimous votes to send a charismatic black leader like Campbell to prison, no matter his faults or misdeeds.
That's a hideously cynical viewpoint, of course, but it's one shared by a number of local attorneys, longtime Campbell-watchers and -- as indicated by virtually every racially charged statement he's made regarding the federal corruption investigation that was launched more than six years ago -- Bill Campbell himself.
An often-overlooked nugget of trivia is that Campbell once worked as a federal prosecutor, where he presumably received a first-rate education in plausible deniability.
It's been a long, sleazy journey to Judge Richard Story's courtroom on the 21st floor of the Richard B. Russell Federal Building. The former mayor stands accused of taking bribes, tax evasion and serving as ringleader to the circus of corruption that was Atlanta City Hall during most of the 1990s.
Along the way, a dozen former city officials, contractors and businessmen with ties to Campbell have pleaded guilty or been convicted by federal prosecutors -- and that doesn't include other admitted felons who've avoided prison by finking out the mayor.
It's also worth noting that this sorry saga has unfurled against the backdrop of a city that has twice elected a black woman now widely acclaimed as one of the best mayors in America. Shirley Franklin is credited with pulling Atlanta out of a tailspin caused by an $80 million budget deficit, neglected sewers and rampant cronyism.
To many city-dwellers, the comparison between Franklin's performance over the past four years and her predecessor's scandal-plagued stint in office is argument enough that Bill Campbell's proper place is behind bars.
After all, the days when it was still possible to debate whether City Hall under Campbell was a den of thieves are long gone. The only remaining question is, can it be proven that Bill was one of them?
"What's in it for me?" Campbell is famously alleged to have replied in 1999 when a golfing buddy asked how a computer company he represented might win a city contract for Y2K work. Five years later, the ex-Campbell pal, Dan DeBardelaben, told the feds that he delivered three wads of cash totaling $55,000 to the mayor on behalf of computer contractor Samuel Barber, who ended up with the $1 million contract.
In 2003, Barber also pleaded guilty to lying to a federal grand jury about making $10,000 in illegal contributions to Campbell's 1997 re-election campaign.
Simply trying to keep track of the various scams, payoffs and crony moments like these during Campbell's reign as mayor can make the head swim. If you believe prosecutors, his eight years in office were filled with near-countless episodes of nickel-and-dime graft -- they say he even scalped his free World Series tickets -- punctuated by the occasional big grab. According to the federal indictment, Campbell jet-setted to Paris on an all-expenses-paid junket courtesy of the city water contractor, but wasn't too proud to get friends to shake down a small-time contractor to install an AC unit at his house in tony Inman Park.
Campbell likewise is accused of accepting more than $130,000 in shady campaign contributions in 1997 from a wannabe dirt contractor, as well as pocketing gifts of cash-crammed wallets to take on one of his notorious gambling sprees.
Tunica, Miss., a nine-casino backwater a short drive from Memphis, was a favorite Campbell playground. He also enjoyed himself at high-stakes blackjack tables from Vegas to the Caribbean and Gulfport to Atlantic City, often gambling with $100 chips. Campbell never spent a dime of his own money for those trips, prosecutors say; instead, they were bankrolled by businessmen angling for city contracts.
Typically along for the ride were "various women with whom Bill Campbell had a personal relationship," First Assistant U.S. Attorney Sally Yates explained Monday, during her opening remarks to the jury.
And if it wasn't the mayor himself with his hand out, say feds, it was a rogue's gallery of corrupt officials and Campbell's poker pals, some of whom have already completed prison sentences while awaiting Hizzoner's day in court. They include: Fred Prewitt, a Campbell confidant who admitted serving as a minority "front" for white-owned companies seeking city business; Larry Wallace, the city's chief operating officer and one of Campbell's oldest friends, who was nailed in 2002 for taking $56,000 in illegal payments from a city contractor; and Joe Reid, Wallace's second-in-command, also convicted of accepting bribes.
In their attempt to nab the former mayor, prosecutors have rolled out the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Under RICO, it's less vital to prove the specifics of each allegation against the defendant than it is to demonstrate that Campbell knew he was overseeing a culture of corruption at Atlanta City Hall.
The seven-count indictment alleges 11 separate criminal acts under the RICO heading.
"You're attempting to show a pattern of criminal conduct, which has two advantages," says Alan Cook, director of the University of Georgia's Prosecutorial Clinic. "It allows for stiffer penalties and it allows jurors to connect the dots after you've shown them the whole picture."
That's important for a case like Campbell's, in which there's no proverbial smoking gun, says Terry Lloyd, a former federal prosecutor, now a defense lawyer in Lawrenceville.
Predicts Lloyd: "You'll see prosecutors piling on as much minutia as they can to convince the jury that he just had to know about it."
There was a time, of course, when few could have imagined that Bill Campbell would end up disgraced, persecuted and routinely vilified as the worst Atlanta mayor in generations. Certainly not Clair Muller, who joined Campbell on City Council in 1990.
"It's been a fairly sharp reversal for someone who should've hung the moon," she says.
They first met when Muller was a Buckhead activist fighting the Ga. 400 construction project and Campbell was an up-and-coming councilman willing to discuss neighborhood issues.
"He was smooth, smart and articulate, and had an impeccable background -- Vanderbilt and Duke -- so he really wowed 'em on the north side," recalls Muller, who says she hosted a campaign fundraiser for Campbell in the late '80s.
Much has been made of Campbell's childhood encounters with racism and how those experiences may have shaped his outlook toward white Atlanta. As defense attorney Martin noted Monday, "You have to understand more about the life of Bill Campbell to understand this trial."
Starting at age 7 and for the next few years, he was the only black child in a previously all-white elementary school in his hometown of Raleigh, sent there by his determined father, a janitor who headed the local chapter of the NAACP.
Little else in Campbell's early life suggests racial bitterness. After earning his law degree at Duke University in 1977, he married Sharon Tapscott, a former spokesmodel for M&M's Candies, and took a job with a top Atlanta law firm. Moving into predominantly white Inman Park, the couple sent their two children to Paideia, a pricey private school in Druid Hills.
He joined City Council, rose to become Mayor Maynard Jackson's floor leader, and was best known for leading the Council fight against Presidential Parkway through his adopted neighborhood.
After working for a while as a prosecutor for the U.S. Justice Department, Campbell went into private practice with Steve Labovitz, a white Sandy Springs resident whom Yates described as being "like a brother" to Campbell. Later, after being elected to his first term as mayor in 1993, Campbell hired Labovitz as chief of staff.
Those who know Campbell well say his attitude toward white constituents changed during the bruising 1997 mayor's race against Marvin Arrington. He discovered that much of his north side support had eroded because of the city's inability to control the throngs of black college kids on spring break during the annual Freaknik cruise-a-thon.
"When Bill Campbell lost the white community over Freaknik, he felt betrayed and was never the same," says a local black elected official who asked not to have his name used. "After he won re-election, it was like he said, 'Fuck white people.'"
After Campbell became mayor and she was chairing the City Utilities Committee, Muller says they often butted heads over contracts that he wanted to steer toward a favored firm. She remembers once when they wound up in the same City Hall elevator. By the time the doors opened, the new mayor was screaming at her for questioning why a vital contract that had gained Council approval months earlier had not been signed.
"It clearly was a situation where the top bidder was not someone he liked, so it was sitting on someone's desk until he could peel off a part of the job and give it to someone else," Muller says. "So he accused me of meddling because I was trying to push it along."
Other City Hall insiders contend the Campbell administration often used affirmative action guidelines to manipulate bidding for contracts before Council even saw them. Touted by Maynard Jackson as the crowning achievement of his first term in office, the minority participation program required white-owned companies that hoped to earn city business to partner with a minority-owned firm. The idea was to share the wealth, to give black-owned businesses that had long been shut out of city contracts a chance to compete.
But during the Campbell years, critics say, the minority set-aside program was used as a feeding trough for the mayor's chums and political supporters. Prewitt, who rented out his name to white contractors even though his sham company did no actual work was the most egregious example. When a city inspector filed a report citing suspicions that Prewitt's firm was merely fronting, the inspector was reassigned and his report shelved.
"I had bad vibes about the way contracts were being awarded," says a former city department head who quit a few months into the first Campbell administration. "I had the feeling that everything was being directed to certain firms and people."
The ex-staffer, who asked not to have his name used because he remains a prominent public official, says he bailed on Bill because he felt he and other City Hall employees were facing increasing pressure to look the other way or become complicit in the shenanigans.
For example, he recalls the day he received a staff evaluation of two corporate finalists for a city contract. Firm A was favored because it had submitted the lower bid and had more experience in the type of work involved than Firm B. That afternoon, however, the city's contract compliance office sent him a memo saying it had just disqualified Firm A's bid because the company hadn't complied with minority participation guidelines. Scarcely a half-hour later, he received a memo from Firm B explaining that it had just hired a minority subcontractor -- the brother of one of Campbell's chief fundraisers.
In 2000, around the same time Prewitt entered his guilty plea, the city, pressed by lawsuits from the conservative Southeastern Legal Foundation, agreed to set aside its minority set-aside program.
Felicia Moore, who joined City Council at the beginning of Campbell's second term, says many black Atlantans believe the rampant cronyism did harm to the cause of affirmative action.
"It hurt the purpose of the program because it denies a seat at the table to people who don't have the political connections," she says. "The business just went again and again to the same folks."
Still, Moore isn't saying whether she thought Campbell was a crook.
"I was very critical of his administration because I couldn't get enough information to make good decisions," she says. "As a Council member, you could voice your concerns, shout and scream, but at the end of the day, he had enough votes to do whatever he wanted, so you just had to move on."
One possible reason it took so long for Campbell to be indicted is that, despite all the millions in dirty money that passed through the hands of city officials, little of it can be traced directly to the mayor. Most of the stories of bribery and payola involve middlemen who allegedly shielded Hizzonor from face-to-face contact with crooked contractors. There's often no direct line of sight between the quid and the quo.
"He wasn't going to make it easy for you," Yates told the jury Monday. She said Campbell avoided keeping records, swept his home and office for bugs, rarely talked with shady associates by phone and, whenever possible, avoided depositing cash into his bank account.
Consider the case of Ronnie Thornton, a Clayton County businessman who was trying to wrangle the contract to provide dirt for the airport's new runway at the same time Campbell was facing his brutal 1997 runoff battle against Arrington. Told the mayor needed money fast, Thornton anted up $130,000, which was then clumsily funneled into Campbell's campaign coffers in the form of dozens of cashier's checks and money orders bearing the names of people picked virtually at random. Many of the checks were sequentially numbered, making it obvious they'd been purchased in a bundle. Yates said Monday that Labovitz was directly involved in helping cover up the illegal contributions. Labovitz is now an attorney with the influential Atlanta firm of McKenna Long & Aldridge. The scheme unraveled when the FBI began visiting folks as far away as Macon, Swainsboro and North Carolina who were surprised to learn they had contributed $1,000 to help re-elect Bill Campbell.
Thornton, who subsequently received a chunk of the $360 million dirt contract, pleaded guilty in 2001 to making illegal campaign contributions, but even then prosecutors didn't show how Campbell himself was involved in the fraud.
Then there's Joe Reid, the city's deputy chief operating officer, who told the feds he received two gift boxes from a computer contractor, each containing a billfold stuffed with $5,000, and passed them on to his boss and Campbell chum, Larry Wallace. The understanding, Reid told prosecutors, was that the money would fund a casino outing for Wallace and Campbell.
The computer company, Spectronics, was later paid $105,000 in what city officials creatively termed a "reseller's fee" -- in other words, money for nothing -- as part of a contract to another firm.
If the prosecutors' portrayal is accurate, the ex-mayor was more careful to cover his tracks than some fellow pols. Then-Fulton County Commission Chairman Mitch Skandalakis and Commissioner Michael Hightower both served time after feds discovered they'd taken bribes from telecommunications contractor George Greene.
Prosecutors say Campbell took his own squirrelly payments from Greene, not in the form of a parking lot handoff, but as a $5,000 honorarium for giving a 30-minute lunchtime pep talk to Greene's employees -- what would seem to be a textbook example of plausible deniability.
There are a few instances, however, where it's easier to connect the dots, depending on whom you believe.
Dewey Clark, a man who had lived for six years in Campbell's basement, claimed he had served as the bagman between Club Nikki owner Michael Childs and the mayor, delivering a total of $50,000 in bribes intended to persuade Campbell to approve a liquor license.
Jerry Froelich, Campbell's aggressive defense attorney, hinted to jurors Monday that he expected to tear Clark and others apart on the witness stand: "I'm looking forward to cross-examining Mr. Clark."
The feds also could go back as far as the airport corruption scandal in the early '90s, which saw Councilman Buddy Fowlkes, Hartsfield Manager Ira Jackson, and two airport contractors packed off to the slammer. One of those contractors, Harold Echols, claimed to have paid bribes to Campbell (and Arrington, to boot). For reasons never entirely made clear, Campbell wasn't indicted. Instead, he was elected mayor.
More recently, there's DeBardelaben, who says he put $55,000 in Campbell's hands, money that came from computer contractor Barber, who's admitted he was trying to bribe the mayor.
Finally, there's the matter of the United Water contract. During his final days in office, the city water commissioner refused to approve an $80 million contract increase for the city's water contractor, despite constant pressure.
But a few months after Campbell left office, the contract resurfaced -- with Hizzoner's signature. Campbell said he had no idea how his John Hancock wound up in seven different places on a contract benefiting a company that once spent $12,900 to treat him and Wallace to a lavish trip to Paris.
A handwriting analyst is expected to testify that the signatures indeed belong to Campbell.
As Councilwoman Moore notes, "It looked like Bill's signature to me."
While federal prosecutors and defense attorneys are typically tight-lipped about their respective trial strategies, a few hints can be gleaned from the 117-item questionnaire given last week to potential jurors. Sprinkled among the standard queries designed to identify conflicts of interest and prejudice were a handful of zingers, such as: "Do you feel that someone who has had an extramarital affair is probably dishonest in all areas of life?"
If there was any lingering doubt that prosecutors are planning to drag a few of Campbell's personal skeletons from the closet in their quest for a conviction, that question erases it. The public rumors that Campbell had a girlfriend date to 2001, when prosecutors spoke to former WSB-TV anchorwoman Marion Brooks about trips she took with the mayor on chartered jets that were allegedly paid for by city contractors. On Monday, Yates spoke in the plural when talking about Campbell's alleged affairs.
But defense attorney Martin tried to contain the damage to his client's character: "In spite of the so-called affairs, he never missed a basketball game for his kids."
The ex-mayor's wife, Sharon Campbell, was in the courtroom seated directly behind her husband. They have lived in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., since they left Atlanta three years ago. Campbell became a partner in the firm headed by Willie Gary, a flashy litigator known for huge jury awards and a private jet. (Curiously, Campbell isn't listed among partners on the firm's website.)
"It's reasonable to expect prosecutors to work in some character assassination since they don't have Bill Campbell's thumbprints on the money," says former prosecutor Lloyd.
Speaking of money, it seems prosecutors intend to heavily rely on Campbell's bank records to show he had secret sources of cash that didn't come from his City Hall paychecks. In 1995, Yates said, Campbell withdrew a total of $20,000 from his bank account. In 1996, when the alleged bribery began, he took out only $5,000. By 1999, the mayor's cash withdrawals dropped to only $69 for the entire year, as he relied on city contractors -- "human ATMs" -- for his walking-around money, Yates said.
Lloyd explains that the challenge for the feds is to make Campbell sound like a scumbag without stooping to too-obvious character assassination.
"If all they're doing is slinging mud, then the prosecution looks bad," Lloyd says.
For its part, the defense seemed focused on finding jurors inclined to buy the notion that Campbell had been targeted by the feds because he fought for black interests. Witness the questions, "Do you feel that south Atlanta receives its fair share of development projects?" and "What is your opinion of race relations in Atlanta?" -- neither of which have much bearing on whether the ex-mayor was on the take.
Councilwoman Moore says attitudes toward Campbell among black Atlantans are far from unanimous, but acknowledges a cultural distrust for federal investigations of black elected officials.
"I don't want to say that race wasn't a factor in the indictment," she says. "Anyone who lives in Atlanta knows that race is an issue. African-Americans as a whole have a general awareness that blacks in positions of power have to be twice as clean as their white counterparts."
To many blacks, one of the real injustices in the Campbell investigation has been its years-long duration. Starting in 1999, it overshadowed much of the mayor's second term and hung over him after he left office in January 2002 until his 2004 indictment.
"Lots of African-Americans are wondering why all these black leaders, when they reach a pinnacle of power, are targeted by federal investigations," says state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta.
"The length of time it's taken to prosecute Campbell raises particular suspicions in the African-American community," says Brooks, who adds that, although he doesn't know the specifics in Campbell's case, he hopes the ex-mayor is eventually found to be innocent.
Denise de La Rue, one of Georgia's top jury consultants, says the notion that all black jurors are likely to vote the same way "is very one-dimensional." She also disputes the contention that it's become more difficult to convict high-profile defendants, as with O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson and Robert Blake.
But she agrees that Campbell's familiarity poses a special problem for prosecutors. "Anytime you're dealing with someone so well-known, then it's an uphill battle to shake a juror's impression of that person unless you can produce a tape that shows them saying or doing things that contradicts their image of that person," says de La Rue.
Not that there haven't also been signs of discord among Campbell's musical-chairs defense team. He's blown through a yacht-full of lawyers over the past five years, including such top-dollar talents as Bobby Lee Cook and, just this past August, Steve Sadow. Currently, his defense is headed by D.C.-based Martin, who specializes in white-collar crime, and Atlanta-based Froelich, a former federal prosecutor who represented Baltimore Ravens running back Jamal Lewis, who pleaded guilty last year to drug charges.
Insiders say Campbell's own ego may have soured his working relationship with his lawyers.
"People who've gotten as far as Bill feel like they know best," explains Angelo Fuster, who served off and on as communications director under Young, Jackson and Campbell. "Bill wants to be so much in charge of his own defense, it probably drove people crazy."
Or, as one observer described it, "Campbell has gone through several lawyers but the lead attorney has always remained the same -- and that's Bill Campbell."
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