Builder convicted of bribing official Jennings paid housing agency aide to get no-bid contracts

November 22, 1995|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

A federal jury yesterday convicted contractor Larry Jennings of bribing a city manager to help win more than $1.18 million in no-bid work from the Baltimore Housing Authority but acquitted him of less serious tax fraud charges.

Wearing a dark green suit, Jennings slumped in a leather defense chair and sat stone-faced as the jury forewoman announced the verdicts: guilty on all three felony counts of bribery; not guilty on two felony counts of tax fraud.

Jennings faces a maximum 30-year prison term when he returns for sentencing Feb. 16.

Members of Jennings' family, who sat behind him throughout the trial that started last Monday, seemed stunned as the verdicts were read in Room 3A of the U.S. District Courthouse in Baltimore. They sat in silence, huddled close together in the wooden pews that line the back of the room.

Outside the courtroom, the contractor declined to talk about his conviction.

"I don't have anything to say," said Jennings, 56, whose son served as a Housing Authority board member while his two companies were receiving the no-bid repair contracts from the city agency.

Defense lawyers said they planned to appeal the verdicts, reached after about 4 1/2 hours of deliberations yesterday.

"It was a difficult thing for the jury to do, to reconcile two views that were 180 degrees opposed," George J. Terwilliger III said. "They had to resolve it, and we respect that."

Sending a message

Prosecutors said the case sends an important message.

"It shows that an attempt to curry favor doesn't work," U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia said. "There has to be a level playing field in winning Housing Authority contracts. The public won't condone this kind of behavior."

The conviction could strengthen the federal government's corruption investigation of the Housing Authority. For the first time, a contractor accused of paying bribes decided to take his case to a jury, rather than plead guilty. And for the first time, the credibility of the government's star witness in the probe, Charles Morris, was tested on the stand. Morris, a supervisor in the no-bid program, is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to bribery.

During his testimony, Morris confused dollar amounts of bribes. He mixed up the dates he said he received cash payments from Jennings. But in the end, the jury believed him, providing prosecutors with a courtroom-tested, jury-approved witness as they continue to examine claims of corruption within the Housing Authority.

So far 13 people have been convicted of corruption charges stemming from the probe, six of them involved in the agency's no-bid repair program.

Jennings was charged with paying three bribes to Morris totaling $6,500 in April, May and June of 1993 and then masking the money to make it look as if he had given cash to a pair of subcontractors. By reporting that money as payments to subcontractors, Jennings was charged with violating tax laws.

During the trial, Mr. Terwilliger portrayed Morris as a man who couldn't keep his story straight. Mr. Terwilliger also accused prosecutors of concocting evidence to correspond to what their witness had told them. He said the prosecution fabricated its theory to explain how the bribes were paid.

Prosecutors said Mr. Jennings wrote checks made payable to two subcontractors, cashed those checks without giving the money to the subcontractors, and then used the cash to pay Morris. The subcontractors testified last week that they never received the checks, never saw the money and never endorsed the checks.

Jennings, testifying on his own behalf, said he had an unusual business deal with a liquor store and check cashing business in West Baltimore. He said he authorized the owner of Doc's Liquor Store, Charles Armwood Jr., to advance money to some of his subcontractors.

When it was time to repay the advances, Jennings testified that he gave checks made payable to the subcontractors to Mr. Armwood. He said he gave one of the checks in dispute directly to the subcontractor -- although the subcontractor testified that he never saw any of the money.

The testimony was confusing. In the end, the jury acquitted Jennings of the tax charges. But the jurors decided to convict Jennings of the more serious bribery counts. Each bribery charge carries a maximum 10-year prison term. Each tax count would have carried a maximum of 3 years.

Troubled program

The bribery case stems from a chaotic, $25.6 million program the Housing Authority created to repair publicly owned homes in Baltimore between 1991-94.

Several close friends of housing chief Daniel P. Henson III received work. So did Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's brother-in-law, who won a $315,000 no-bid contract. Jennings also had a connection: his son, Larry Jennings Jr., who served as a member of the board that oversees the Housing Authority.

The elder Jennings set up two companies that won no-bid contracts from the agency: Elias Contracting Corp. and Environmental Protection Co. According to testimony during the trial, the younger Mr. Jennings played an intimate role in at least one of the companies, Elias.

Morris testified that the younger Mr. Jennings was present during a meeting he had with the elder Jennings to discuss housing contracts for Elias in 1991. The elder Jennings denied the meeting took place.

The younger Mr. Jennings also gave Morris a set of golf clubs while work was being handed out by the Housing Authority, according to FBI reports introduced in court. He wrote checks for Elias, balanced the company's books, and worked as vice president of the firm -- all while serving as a member of the housing board, according to testimony in the trial.

Prosecutors declined to say if the younger Mr. Jennings is under investigation as part of the Housing Authority corruption probe.

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