Jennings testifies at bribe hearing Businessman asserts he won contracts through 'hard work'

November 18, 1995|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

Clasping his hands and choking back tears, Larry Jennings Sr. proclaimed his innocence to jurors in his federal bribery trial yesterday, telling them he "absolutely" never paid off a Baltimore Housing Authority manager to win more than $1.18 million in city contracts.

In his first public defense of the five felony charges against him, Mr. Jennings, the son of a Missouri sharecropper, told jurors he won the no-bid city housing contracts through hard work, having two jobs and working more than 16 hours a day.

Mr. Jennings, 56, whose son served as a Housing Authority board member when the contracts were awarded, said he started two contracting companies to help his daughter -- who suffers from a serious medical condition.

"My daughter is a very sickly person. She's had 6 to 7 operations," Mr. Jennings told the jury, sitting straight in a leather witness chair, his voice breaking as he explained why he set up the firms.

"We talked over Sunday dinners about how to help each other. It was more to help her than to help me."

Defense attorney George J. Terwilliger III asked Mr. Jennings to tell the jury if he ever paid a bribe to Charles Morris, a housing manager who has pleaded guilty to taking more than $20,000 in illegal payments from six housing contractors, including Mr. Jennings.

"Absolutely not," he said, his voice snapping the silence in room 3A of the U.S. District Courthouse in Baltimore. "I had no reason to pay him. I was already working. The work was coming."

Mr. Jennings is charged with paying Morris three bribes totaling $6,500 in 1993 -- a time when a city Housing Authority program to fix run-down houses in Baltimore was booming. When the program ended last year, the agency had spent at least $25.6 million.

In testimony that took most of the day, Mr. Jennings portrayed himself as a hard-working family man wrongly accused by a felon out to save himself from a long prison sentence.

Facing a prison term if convicted, Mr. Jennings made the risky decision to take the stand in his own defense.

Five other housing contractors facing similar charges weren't as bold. All pleaded guilty.

Mr. Jennings told jurors he never needed anyone's help to build his businesses. While working as a night-shift supervisor for the Maryland Transit Authority in 1991, he founded Elias Construction, a small home improvement firm he ran with his daughter, Georgia, and his wife, Vergie.

Records show his son, Larry Jennings Jr., a former housing board member, also helped manage the company's finances -- at a time when his agency was providing Elias with nearly 80 percent of its work. Elias won about $1 million in city housing contracts.

Two years later, Mr. Jennings started a second firm called the Environmental Protection Co., which won a $254,000 no-bid contract to test city houses for lead paint. He said he began that company without anyone's help and Morris played no role in the city contract that the firm won.

Morris has testified he worked closely with Georgia Jennings, even helping her draft the proposal that eventually won the company the contract.

Mr. Terwilliger asked Mr. Jennings if Morris helped him win the work.

"Absolutely not," Mr. Jennings testified. "Morris knew nothing about EPC."

Mr. Terwilliger then asked Mr. Jennings to explain a series of checks prosecutors say were used to pay the alleged bribes that went to Morris.

Mr. Jennings said he had a unique business relationship with the owner of Doc's Liquor Store in West Baltimore. Mr. Jennings said when he advanced money to his subcontractors he would have his friend, Charles Armwood Jr. who runs Doc's, give them the money.

When the construction job was finished, Mr. Jennings said he would write a check to the subcontractor and give it to Mr. Armwood to cover the advance.

Mr. Armwood, who testified for the defense, is dating Georgia Jennings.

Mr. Terwilliger showed Mr. Jennings a series of checks made out to two subcontractors -- checks prosecutors say were used to fund alleged bribes. Prosecutors say Mr. Jennings recorded the checks as payments to the subcontractors on tax forms, even though owners of those firms testified that they never saw the money or endorsed the checks.

Mr. Terwilliger showed Mr. Jennings one of the prosecution's exhibits -- an Elias check to a subcontractor for $3,000 dated April 26, 1993.

"Did you give Charles Morris any money from that $3,000 check?" the defense attorney asked.

"Absolutely not," Mr. Jennings said.

Mr. Jennings said he was repaying loans on advances made to Carl Anthony, a man he believed to be a partner of one of his subcontractors. Mr. Anthony, a witness who would have been asked to corroborate Mr. Jennings' claims, was murdered in Baltimore last year.

To help establish an alibi, Mr. Terwilliger asked his client to review records that explain where Mr. Jennings was on June 25, 1993 -- a day prosecutors say he paid a $1,500 bribe to Morris.

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