Fraud trial now in hands of the jury

`Pattern of deceit' outlined by state in closing arguments

Focus on Schmoke letter

Defense insists pair had no reason to try `bell-ringing' scheme

July 11, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron and Greg Garland | Thomas W. Waldron and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

After more than five hours of closing arguments yesterday, a federal jury begins deliberations today in the complex mail-fraud case against a Baltimore legislator and one of the State House's top-earning lobbyists.

The panel of seven women and five men must sift through four weeks of testimony and dozens of documents to decide whether Del. Tony E. Fulton and lobbyist Gerard E. Evans planned to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees for Evans by exaggerating the threat of legislation aimed at companies he represented.

In his concluding remarks to the jury, Assistant U.S. Attorney Dale P. Kelberman outlined evidence that he said showed that Fulton helped Evans alarm paint and asbestos manufacturers about the threat of hostile legislation in the General Assembly.

Between 1997 and 1999, Evans repeatedly warned clients of potentially devastating legislation that he said was imminent in Annapolis. Despite those warnings, no such legislation was introduced.

"The evidence has shown a pattern of deceit and misrepresentation by Mr. Evans to defraud his clients," Kelberman said. "He got Del. Fulton's cooperation and assistance in carrying out the scheme."

Evans' lawyer, Robert C. Bonsib, denied his client had done anything to defraud clients, asserting that the "misrepresentations" alleged by the government were honest mistakes Evans made trying to keep his clients fully informed.

"He's got to make judgment calls as to what to do and he made those judgment calls, and he did it in good faith," Bonsib told the jury.

Evans, he added, had plenty of clients and was earning more than $35,000 a month at the time of some of the alleged misrepresentations. He asserted that the lobbyist had no motive for cheating the paint and asbestos companies.

Richard D. Bennett, the lawyer for Fulton, a West Baltimore Democrat who has been in the House of Delegates 14 years, sharply disputed the prosecution's interpretation of the case. He noted that while Evans collected $400,000 over two years, Fulton allegedly received only a $10,000 real estate commission steered to him by Evans.

"What benefit did Tony Fulton get out of this?" Bennett asked. "You'd have to be a functional idiot to allow someone to use you like that." He added that Fulton had worked hard to earn the real estate commission.

The arguments concluded a trial that began June 12 and featured testimony from dozens of witnesses, including several state legislators.

The prosecution cast a monthlong light on usually hidden dealings in the high-stakes world of State House lobbying.

Prosecutors tried to prove that Evans and Fulton engaged in what is known in Annapolis as "bell-ringing" - a scheme in which legislators help invent or exaggerate the threat of legislation to help lobbyists secure fees from concerned clients who would want the legislation killed.

Each of the men is charged with 11 counts of mail and wire fraud, with each charge carrying a penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The counts center on Evans' use of the mail or phone lines to bill clients or send them what prosecutors said was misleading information about the threat of legislation, acts that Fulton allegedly abetted.

Evans, 44, and Fulton, 48, are being tried together but mounted separate defenses. U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz instructed the jury that it could convict both men, acquit both, or convict one but not the other on each count.

In their closing arguments, all three lawyers spent time discussing a key piece of evidence, an October 1998 letter Fulton sent to Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, soliciting support for legislation Fulton said he would introduce in the 1999 General Assembly session.

Prosecutors say Evans wrote the letter.

In addition, a former associate of Evans, James B. Davis III, testified that Evans doctored a copy of the letter to make it appear he had obtained a final copy of the letter from Schmoke's office rather than from Fulton.

In testimony last week, Evans denied writing the letter or doctoring it, and suggested that Davis might have altered the document.

Yesterday, Bonsib downplayed the importance of the document, noting that Schmoke did receive the letter, as Evans told his clients he had.

"The bottom line is: `So what?'" Bonsib said. "Mr. Evans isn't charged with changing a fax line. That isn't a crime."

Fulton insisted in his testimony that he wrote the letter. But Bennett, his lawyer, suggested that the authorship wasn't important. Kelberman, in his rebuttal to the defense attorney's closing statements, expressed astonishment at such arguments.

"We've been in this courtroom for four weeks talking about whether they dealt honestly and openly with [Evans'] clients. "They have attempted to convince you it was written by Tony Fulton. ... If you find they lied about that, then they're guilty from the get-go."

One of four alternate jurors dismissed by the judge yesterday said that the testimony of Davis really stands out."

The juror, who agreed to speak to The Sun on condition of anonymity, said much of the testimony was "just `he said, she said.'" Of the closing arguments, the juror said: "I think the prosecutor was more effective."

In his closing statement, Kelberman agreed with a portion of the argument advanced by Bonsib - that Evans' warnings about the liability legislation were well-founded because of Baltimore lawyer Peter G. Angelos' interest in such a bill.

"In every fraud there is a kernel of truth," Kelberman said. "People don't make up a wholesale lie and expect people to believe them."

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