Posted: Jun 6, 2011 8:39 AM by Lauren Wilson & AP
Updated: Jun 6, 2011 8:43 AM
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A trial is scheduled to open Monday for a former Louisiana mayor charged with taking bribes from undercover FBI agents and a government operative who were posing as businessmen hawking a fictitious trash can cleaning product.
Former New Roads Mayor Tommy Nelson Jr., who lost his re-election bid last year, is one of several elected officials caught up in the sting operation. The first trial spawned by "Operation Blighted Officials" ended in March with a split verdict. Jurors convicted former White Castle Mayor Maurice Brown of corruption charges but acquitted his brother, Mario, the town's police chief.
A key government witness for both trials is William Myles, a businessman who was hired by the FBI five years ago to work as an undercover operative.
During the Browns' trial, Myles said he started working for the FBI in Connecticut in 2005 while he was working on a school contract and ran into corrupt local officials. Myles said his primary motivation for reporting the alleged corruption to the FBI was his hope that agents would help win leniency for his son, who was facing felony drug charges.
But the FBI ultimately recruited him to work full-time on other cases, including probes of Ponzi schemes and "national security matters," Myles testified.
In Louisiana, the FBI enlisted him to portray a corrupt businessman promoting "Cifer 5000," which was billed as a "conceptual product" that municipalities could use to clean residents' trash cans. Although it was modeled after an existing product, the FBI invented Cifer 5000 as an excuse for Myles and undercover agents to approach elected officials suspected of being corrupt.
The agents went to elaborate lengths to back up Myles' cover story: FBI Special Agent Maurice Hattier testified that agents created an electronic paper trail for a bogus government contract in Myles' name and even encouraged a Connecticut newspaper called Inquiring News to publish a glowing profile of Myles.
The FBI also has spent more than $500,000 since 2006 to pay Myles' $2,000 weekly salary and cover his expenses, including monthly $2,900 rent for a New Orleans condominium, lease payments for a BMW, a maid service, dry cleaning, meals and flights home to visit his family members, who weren't allowed to visit him while he was undercover.
Prosecutors have said Myles needed the money to maintain his cover as a successful businessman, but the Browns' attorneys tried to portray him as a greedy opportunist.
Mario Brown's lawyer, John McLindon, said his client was accused of taking about $3,400 in cash and tickets to sporting events, while the government spent $5,000 on Myles' dry cleaning alone.
"It just got a little carried away," McLindon said in an interview Friday. "It's an awful lot of money."
The government's initial target was St. Gabriel Mayor George Grace. The FBI launched its undercover prove in late 2007 or early 2008 after hearing allegations that Grace had solicited bribes from Houston and Baton Rouge businessmen.
The FBI dispatched Myles to introduce himself to Grace and pitch him on Cifer 5000. The undercover probe expanded to other targets when Grace identified other officials in his inner circle who may be willing to take payoffs in exchange for their support of the product, according to prosecutors.
"We felt that the undercover operation provided a means tom fully explore Mayor Grace's corruption and that of others around him," Hattier testified.
Lawyers for the officials charged in the FBI probe have accused the government of selectively targeting black politicians, an allegation denied by prosecutors. Nelson, Grace, the Browns and others charged in Operation Blighted Officials are all black.
In a court filing, Nelson said he first met Myles at a golf outing connected to the National Conference of Black Mayors in June 2008. Several months later, Grace arranged for Myles and an undercover agent to meet him and other members of Grace's "A team" in New Orleans so they could discuss Cifer 5000, prosecutors said.
Myles and the agent gave them free tickets to a Saints game, paid for their hotel rooms and gave Grace a $2,000 cash bribe to split with the other mayors, according to prosecutors. Nelson allegedly received $300 from Grace that night and subsequently took four cash bribes totaling $20,000 from Myles and an undercover agent.
Page Pate, one of Nelson's attorneys, wouldn't comment on the allegations against his client. But a court filing Friday by Nelson's lawyers says they may employ an entrapment defense. The Browns' attorneys also argued that the FBI entrapped their clients, a claim Myles rejected.
"We don't go after somebody to make them commit a crime," he testified. "The plan was, let's see what he wants. Let's see what he wants to do. And from that it evolves on its own."
Darin McAllister, an undercover FBI agent who posed as a venture capitalist involved in the Cifer 5000 project, was convicted last year of unrelated wire fraud charges in Nashville, Tenn., and no longer works for the FBI. He isn't expected to testify at Nelson's trial.
Grace is scheduled to be tried in January 2012. A trial for two others, Port Allen Mayor Derek Lewis and Port Allen Police Chief Fred Smith, is scheduled to start July 25. Former Port Allen City Councilman Johnny L. Johnson Sr. pleaded guilty last year to racketeering and bribery charges.