Alleged housing bribes detailed Ex-city official says contractor on trial gave him bag of cash

November 15, 1995|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Eric Siegel and Joanna Daemmrich contributed to this article.

For Charles Morris, taking cash bribes while he was working as a manager for Baltimore's Housing Authority didn't seem like such a big deal.

During his testimony at the bribery trial of Larry Jennings Sr., Morris said yesterday he accepted a series of payments from the home improvement contractor without asking any questions, and without any real reservations.

On April 26, 1993, shortly after learning that his mother was dying of cancer in South Bay, Fla., Morris testified, he received a phone call from Mr. Jennings. He said the contractor had heard his mother was sick and that he wanted to stop by the Housing Authority to pick him up.

While circling the Housing Authority building in Mr. Jennings' truck, Morris testified, the contractor reached over and handed him a bag filled with cash -- between $2,500 and $3,000.

"He said, 'I know how hard it is. Here's something to help you along,' " Morris testified.

"What did you say?" U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia asked Morris during yesterday's testimony.

"I said, 'Thank you.' "

"What did Mr. Jennings say?"

"He said, 'Without your help, I don't know where I would be today.' "

Mr. Jennings faces five counts of bribery and filing false tax forms stemming from claims that he paid Morris three bribes totaling $6,500 while trying to win work for his family's two companies: Elias Contracting and Environmental Protection Co.

The firms eventually won $1.18 million in no-bid contracts from the Housing Authority as part of a $25.6 million program designed to fix up run-down rowhouses and apartments in the city.

At the time the contracts were awarded, Mr. Jennings' son, Larry Jennings Jr., served on the housing agency's board as a Schmoke administration appointee. FBI reports show that the younger Mr. Jennings took part in a meeting with Morris to help win the work, and provided a set of golf clubs to Morris.

The reports also say that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's chief of staff intervened in the contract approval process, clearing the way for Elias Contracting to win work despite concerns that the contract posed a potential conflict of interest.

"This is not true," chief of staff Lynnette Young said last night. "I have never called anyone at HABC [Housing Authority of Baltimore City] or anywhere else concerning Mr. Jennings Sr. I've never had anything to do with his getting or not getting work."

Ms. Young said she had never been contacted by the FBI or the U.S. attorney's office about the claim. Mayor Schmoke dismissed the allegation as an attempt by Morris to try to implicate as many people as possible to gain a lighter sentence in his case.

"I absolutely believe he's lying," Mr. Schmoke said. "The whole thing just strikes me as Morris, who is a convicted criminal, is trying to save his neck."

In court yesterday, prosecutors and defense attorneys focused on the bribery claims.

Morris testified that he used the alleged bribes to buy flowers, a burial dress and plane tickets to attend his mother's funeral. He converted some of the cash into travelers checks. Prosecutors introduced those records as evidence. They also introduced records showing a $600 purchase from the florist.

Morris said he used some of the cash to pay a friend who had purchased a computer for one of his children, and deposited part of the money into a credit union account, leaving another record for prosecutors to introduce at the trial.

Mr. Jennings' defense attorney seemed mystified by Morris' matter-of-fact testimony.

"Did it occur to you that you were not very bright to leave a paper trail?" defense attorney George J. Terwilliger III asked.

"No, it didn't occur to me at all," said Morris, who pleaded guilty to bribery charges in August 1994 after he was caught taking money from contractors. He has been cooperating with an FBI probe into the Housing Authority while awaiting sentencing.

For most of yesterday, Mr. Terwilliger attacked Morris, portraying him as a unreliable man out to save himself from a long prison term by accusing an innocent contractor.

On the witness stand, Morris was combative. On several occasions, he lost his composure.

He became angry, lashing out at Mr. Terwilliger during the daylong cross-examination.

At one point, Mr. Terwilliger asked if Morris recalled the color of Mr. Jennings' truck.

"It was orange, or Burgundy, or whatever," Morris replied.

"You realize these are serious matters?" Mr. Terwilliger asked.

"Yes," Morris said, "but you're trying to confuse me."

"I'm not trying to do anything," Mr. Terwilliger said, "but get to the truth."

Mr. Morris also had trouble recalling the dates and times and amounts of the alleged payoffs. But he stuck by his story -- that Mr. Jennings gave him bribes while no-bid contracts with the Housing Authority were up for grabs.

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