Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Atlanta mayor goes on trial today

Nobody can reasonably argue that Atlanta city government has been anything but a cesspool of corruption in recent years. Bill Rankin of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (not exactly a right-wing rag) freely admits it:

City Hall was awash in dirty money, influence peddling and favoritism during Bill Campbell's tenure as Atlanta mayor. A long string of guilty pleas and jury verdicts has made that clear. The question before a federal court this week is whether the corruption extended to Campbell himself. The former mayor's trial will begin with jury selection Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Atlanta. The defiant Campbell, who once claimed that the only correct thing in the federal indictment against him was "the spelling of my name," will face a dogged prosecution and a parade of former cronies now poised to testify against him. Campbell is expected to raise the stakes by taking the witness stand himself.

Now, I'm a native Atlantan. Last year, while trying to find how to spell the name of a member of Outkast who'd just won a Grammy, I discovered that he and I were born in the same hospital, Georgia Baptist, which my hip-hop-loving daughter thought was real cool. (Shout out to my homeys.)

And frankly, I kind of liked Bill Campbell -- he was pro-business and pro-growth like such of his predecessors as Andrew Young and William Hartsfield, and not an angry egotistical loudmouth like Maynard Jackson. Atlanta has always been the most enthusiastic Chamber of Commerce pro-business city on the planet (OK, Hong Kong might be close). It seems to be the destiny of Atlanta to suck up every corporate headquarters in the world, and keep paving and building until it annexes everything from Chattanooga to Valdosta. So the only real yardstick for Atlanta mayors has been: Are they pulling in the Yankee dollars? Did they pave their share of what's left to pave? And by that yardstick, Bill Campbell was a champ. He brought in the Olympics, oversaw a huge expansion of the airport, etc. Good mayor, as Atlanta judges such things, and I'm going to stick my neck out and say no Atlanta jury would ever convict him of jaywalking.

But there are federal charges, and as Rankin say, lots of people have already been convicted for their part in the crimes that Campbell is alleged to have been party to:

The seven-count indictment alleges that Campbell, now 52, managed City Hall as a criminal enterprise, and it accuses him of racketeering, acceptingbribes and tax evasion. As mayor from 1994 to 2002, the indictment contends, Campbell raked in more than $160,000 in payoffs and collected $137,000 in illegal campaign contributions. It also charges that city contractors bankrolled a trip to Paris for Campbell, sent him on gambling junkets and installed a heating and air-conditioning system in his Inman Park home. ...

On cross-examination, Campbell's defense is expected to grill Michael David Childs, a former Atlanta strip club owner who paid arsonists to torch clubs owned by competitors. Childs also once told a government informant that he would pay $20,000 to have Campbell injured for reneging on a purported pledge to protect liquor licenses at Childs' clubs - after Childs allegedly bribed Campbell to do so. In a secretly recorded conversation in November 1999, Childs told the informant that he wanted Campbell hurt after he left office. "I want a, uh, a statement to the next one," he said referring to the next mayor. (Campbell was succeeded by Mayor Shirley Franklin.) Childs, a nephew of former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, has assisted in several federal investigations. In exchange for his cooperation against Campbell and others, he received a reduced sentence of three years in prison for arson, bribery and income tax fraud. The federal charges allege that Campbell accepted about $50,000 in bribes from Childs, who passed the money through Dewey Clark, Campbell's special assistant. Clark lived in Campbell's Inman Park basement apartment and later worked at Childs' strip club. Clark allegedly handed over some of Childs' payoffs to Campbell in the basement apartment and in a private restroom inthe mayor's office at City Hall. Clark also is a prosecution witness. The racketeering count allows the prosecutors to present allegations of several more corrupt acts, such as the home heating and air conditioning system, the trip to Paris and allegedly illegal campaign contributions. The prosecutors also will present testimony accusing Campbell of illegal behavior that is not charged in the indictment, in order to try to prove a pattern of criminal activity.

Well, we shall see. As I say, before all the scandals started breaking, Campbell had a reputation as a good mayor by Atlanta standards. He was smart, charming, and a telegenic booster of the city -- which is all that mattered to the Atlanta establishment. I really can't see an Atlanta jury convicting him of anything serious. But undeniable and pervasive corruption in Atlanta city government happened on his watch, so it's kind of like the Tom DeLay/Abramoff thing: The GOP loved DeLay as an effective leader who did the job they wanted done, yet if the prosecutors think they can prove he's broken the law, he's going to have to face the charges.

One more thing: A quid pro quo is a very difficult thing to prove. You may be able to show the "quid" (the favor or gift to the politician) and the "quo" (the policy favorable to the donor), but it can be quite a trick to show the "pro" part -- the agreement that proves that this exchange is an outright bribe. That's why successful bribery cases usually involve some documentary evidence (an e-mail in which the recipient implicates himself, for instance), or some kind of secret surveillance recording involving an undercover informant.