'What's in it for me?' 

Campbell to get his answer at federal graft trial

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.

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