A federal judge gave a Baltimore County couple substantially reduced sentences yesterday after prosecutors outlined how instrumental the husband and wife were in breaking open the bribery case against former state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell Sr.
The FBI investigation into the corrupt relationship between the long-serving Baltimore County Democrat and a construction company executive started in 2000 and ended this year with a seven-year prison term for Bromwell and a string of felony convictions for eight others linked to the payoff scandal.
Yesterday's final sentencing in U.S. District Court in Baltimore focused on Michael Forti, 59, a leading government cooperator who pleaded guilty in September 2005 to filing a false tax return that failed to report income received from free labor and services provided by his company for the construction of his family's Baltimore County waterfront home. He also pleaded guilty to mail fraud in connection with his participation in a minority contracting fraud scheme worth $4.8 million.
"It's obviously important for cooperating witnesses to get consideration, and Judge [J. Frederick] Motz sent a clear message that the cooperation here was extraordinarily important," said Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein.
Prosecutors acknowledged that it was Forti who told investigators about Bromwell's secret agreement to remain in the state Senate at the request of W. David Stoffregen, president and chief executive officer of construction company Poole and Kent. The executive in turn secretly funded home construction work for the politician and provided an $80,000-a-year, no-show job for his wife, Mary Patricia Bromwell.
"These defendants cooperated in the fullest sense of the word," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen O. Gavin, who prosecuted the case with Michael J. Leotta. "They told us a lot of things that we did not know."
Forti received a six-month sentence followed by six months of home confinement. His wife, Geraldine, 58, who also pleaded guilty to the tax charge, was sentenced to two years' probation. The couple also was ordered to pay restitution of $200,000.
Court papers show that Michael Forti helped his boss loot their company, buy off foreign officials and falsely prop up a woman-owned contractor as a way to win a piece of millions of dollars in publicly funded construction projects.
Forti's wife maintained the facade, even pretending that the subcontractor, Namco, was still a real business when state investigators conducted an on-site inspection of the sham enterprise.
In truth, Namco was controlled by Poole and Kent.
In nine sentencings, the presiding judge held the principal players in the racketeering scheme - Bromwell and W. David Stoffregen, the construction executive who paid him off - most accountable with lengthy prison sentences. But for those who served in a lesser role or those who had greatly assisted federal prosecutors, Motz imposed little or no prison time.
Yesterday, Motz took note of the Fortis' cooperation, saying the couple provided vital information against Bromwell at a critical stage in the investigation.
The Fortis had worked with Stoffregen, the construction company executive who has admitted that he bribed Bromwell to stay in elected office. (Stoffregen received a prison sentence of 6 1/2 years.)
In return, Bromwell, who served in the General Assembly for 23 years, provided Stoffregen key help in wrangling publicly funded contracts as well as serving as a personal negotiator to expedite contract payments to Poole and Kent.
Judges in federal court are strongly encouraged to follow recommended sentencing guidelines. The guidelines calculated by prosecutors would have given Michael Forti a prison term of between 27 and 33 months. His wife would have received between eight and 14 months behind bars, according to the same calculation.
Motz instead reduced the recommended guidelines by more than half for the Fortis, noting their assistance to federal investigators. Michael Forti had 11 debriefing sessions with FBI agents and prosecutors, spelling out how Stoffregen bought and paid for Bromwell's political sway in winning contracts.
"Their cooperation made a very important case," Motz said, adding that the Fortis' assistance reignited a stalled FBI investigation. "I think it cost them a lot."
As a result of his cooperation and guilty plea, "Mr. Forti lost his job, and then they lost their friends," said Andrew C. White, Michael Forti's attorney. The Fortis now run a small restaurant in Baltimore County.
Before his plea, Forti served as an executive at Poole and Kent. During the same time, Geraldine Forti operated Namco, a small commercial mechanical construction company.
Namco was certified as a woman-owned business enterprise, eligible for work as a minority business, and Poole and Kent routinely hired Namco as a subcontractor.
In spring 1999, Geraldine Forti decided that she wanted to close Namco. But Stoffregen, then Poole and Kent's president, did not want to lose the opportunity to use Namco. Pairing with Namco enabled Stoffregen's company to meet minority contracting requirements on its governmental projects.
Stoffregen proposed to Michael Forti that Poole and Kent secretly operate and control Namco in exchange for regular payments to Geraldine Forti. The Fortis agreed and received more than $224,000 between June 1999 and about the fall of 2003.
Some of Namco's work during that time included a $2.2 million contract for expansion at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and a $650,000 contract for construction at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.
For previous articles on the public corruption case, go to baltimoresun.com/bromwell.