Branch testifies in ex-staffer's theft trial

Conteh charged with embezzling $2,000 from city councilwoman's campaign treasury

August 09, 2006|By LYNN ANDERSON | LYNN ANDERSON,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore City Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch testified in Circuit Court yesterday that she never ordered her former campaign treasurer - a man who state prosecutors say committed theft and perjury in his political role - to give $2,000 cash to the re-election campaign of state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden in 2002 to cover illegal payments to campaign workers.

"Do you have any knowledge, any personal knowledge, of where that $2,000 went?" Senior Assistant State Prosecutor Steven Trostle asked Branch yesterday in the jury trial of Momoh Abu Conteh, a former city housing authority administrator who lost his job because of allegations of wrongdoing.

"No," Branch responded.

The trial of Conteh, who ran for a spot on the state Democratic Central Committee four years ago, is expected to continue today, with Branch returning to the witness stand. But in an odd twist, McFadden's testimony could be recorded by video from the senator's bedside.

McFadden has told court officials that he recently had back surgery and cannot leave his home. Prosecution and defense attorneys told Judge Allen L. Schwait yesterday that it was critical that they have McFadden's testimony. As a result, Schwait signed a warrant of body attachment, which would require McFadden's appearance in court no matter his medical condition, in case the senator refuses to be videotaped.

Defense attorneys accused McFadden of trying to avoid coming to court and facing the man he set up as his fall guy.

"There's reason to believe that he's ducking testimony in this case," said Steven D. Silverman, one of Conteh's attorneys.

McFadden could not be reached for comment last night.

State prosecutors allege that Conteh embezzled $2,000 from Branch's campaign fund and filed a false campaign report with the state Board of Elections in Annapolis. They say he committed perjury when he signed his name to the campaign report he filed in March 2004 even though he knew it was inaccurate.

Conteh, a native of Sierra Leone and father of three daughters, says he is innocent. His attorneys say that the former human resources administrator had too much going for him- a high-paying job and close ties to several prominent politicians who were willing to help him get elected to the central committee - to jeopardize his future by committing a crime.

Instead, defense attorneys say that Branch, McFadden and other political operatives used Conteh as their scapegoat. They say that Branch asked Conteh to give the $2,000 to Marie Washington, a leader of the powerful Eastside Democratic Organization, for use by the McFadden campaign. They say the cash was used for "walking-around money," or to pay campaign workers.

At the time, such payments were prohibited by state law. However, in March 2004 the Maryland Court of Appeals struck down the law, saying that it violated the U.S. Constitution by unduly restricting free speech.

"Imagine the feeling of being stabbed in the back and being railroaded by people you trusted," said Silverman, during opening remarks in the trial Monday.

In her testimony yesterday, Branch said that she had no knowledge of her campaign's finances because state law prohibits elected officials from handling money. She said she left that responsibility to Conteh, whom she trusted. She said that when she received notices from the Board of Elections warning her that campaign reports had not been filed, she called him to check on the status of the reports.

"He always told me he would get to it," said Branch, whose campaign failed to file reports for about four years.

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

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