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HomeNewsArchivesDefense Challenges Co-Conspirator's Recollections of Fraud Scheme

Defense Challenges Co-Conspirator's Recollections of Fraud Scheme

Feb. 13, 2008 — Defense attorneys in the trial of Dean Plaskett and Marc Biggs probed deeper Wednesday into testimony by former DPNR official Hollis Griffin, and asked him to nail down specific dates and times in which bribery and kickback money garnered from several fraudulent contracts changed hands from Griffin to the former commissioners.
Testifying in District Court, Griffin frequently said that he "could not recall with any specificity" the times and dates of the transactions. On Tuesday, however, Griffin did explain that once checks came in from various vendors, they were deposited into the bank. The funds would subsequently be withdrawn, he added, and disbursed between himself, Plaskett and Biggs — or, in many cases, with co-conspirators Brent Blyden, Earl Brewley and Atlanta-businessman Esmond Modeste.
When asked by prosecuting attorneys on Wednesday why he didn't bring a witness when he paid off Biggs and Plaskett, Griffin said, "Under the criminal code of conduct, that would not have been acceptable."
After the scheme started to unravel, Griffin said Wednesday, Blyden revealed that he had begun taking bribes from prominent V.I. businessman Leroy Marchena. Marchena has been charged with trying to cover up the scheme and thwart a local and federal investigation into the operations of Elite Technical Services — a business enterprise that prosecutors say served as the catalyst for a complex scam to defraud the government of $1.4 million. While Griffin told defense attorneys he had no evidence of Marchena taking or receiving money while the scam was going on, he later recounted a conversation in which Blyden said that "any kickbacks he was going to receive from his illegal activities would be coming from Marchena."
Griffin, Brewley and Modeste have already pleaded guilty to conspiracy for their roles in the scheme, which mushroomed after the formation of Elite. Though Griffin has said that Biggs and Plaskett were not initially involved in plans surrounding Elite's first contract award — a $125,000 permit-review project for Hovensa — he has testified that the commissioners subsequently came to him with the idea of using money budgeted within the Department of Planning and Natural Resources to "fund companies that could be awarded contracts" in exchange for kickbacks. (See "Co-Conspirator Explains Fraud Scheme, Says Plaskett Pulled Knife on Him.")
Griffin's testimony was supported Wednesday by Modeste, who said he worked alongside Brewley and Griffin to form — or sub-contract to — sham companies that would kick back hundreds of thousands of dollars on contracts in which little or no work was performed. Though Modeste said he was initially "worried about getting caught," he said Griffin had assured him that "there were people in the V.I. government who would be looking out for us."
Modeste said he also acted as the processing agent for many of the companies Elite sub-contracted to, including PubSafe Engineering Consultants, which was awarded a $300,000 Title V Air Permit Contract in 2001. On Tuesday, Griffin said PubSafe principal David Tucker was another player in the kickback scheme, and helped to put thousands of dollars into the hands of Griffin, Plaskett and Biggs.
On Wednesday, Modeste explained that he would channel kickback money remitted by PubSafe through his own company, cash the checks, withdraw the funds and hand the money over to Griffin. Modeste also admitted creating official documents needed for Elite to do business in the Virgin Islands, including the company's articles of incorporation and another document that authorized Tammy Goodrum, Griffin's girlfriend from Atlanta, to act on behalf of Elite in her position as one of the company's principals.
According to both Griffin and Modeste, Goodrum was also involved in the scheme. Modeste added Wednesday that he forged certain signatures on the official documents to get the company up and running. Earlier in the day, Griffin said he only forged signatures when he was given "permission by the person" to do so.
When asked by the prosecution about his plea agreement with the government, Modeste admitted that he initially didn't cooperate with law enforcement officials once an investigation into the scheme was launched.
"I was scared," he said. "I wasn't sure if I should tell them what I know, especially without representation. But then I seriously thought about the deeds I had committed, and I got in touch with the agent and said I would cooperate."
Though Modeste said prosecutors could recommend that he serve a reduced jail sentence in exchange for providing "truthful" testimony, he added that the recommendation is not set in stone, but rather subject to a judge's approval. Under questioning from defense attorneys earlier in the day, Griffin made similar remarks.
Still, Plaskett's defense attorney said Griffin's testimony was not accurate in some cases, and could be contested by telephone conversations recorded by Plaskett in 2005. Presiding District Court Judge Curtis Gomez is expected to decide Thursday whether the tape of those conservations will be admitted into evidence.
The defense was given a little leeway with testimony provided Wednesday by Brewley, who said he didn't know what Griffin did with the kickback money once the vendor checks were deposited into Elite's bank account and the funds were withdrawn. Brewley said that once he and Modeste had gotten their cuts, the rest of the money was turned over to Griffin.
"He said he had people to pay," Brewley said of Griffin. "He never said who. After I gave him the money, I don't know what he did with it."
Brewley, who said he was a childhood friend of Griffin's, explained that he became involved with the scam after Griffin asked him to sign a document authorizing Brewley to be the "processor" for PubSafe — meaning that he would act on the company's behalf while in the Virgin Islands. Brewley admitted that he did not know where the company was based, or who the principals were, but said that he granted Griffin's request without question because the two had "been friends for years."
Looking back to Griffin's testimony on Tuesday, prosecuting attorneys called Jamal Nielsen, DPNR's media-relations coordinator, to the stand to explain a 2005 meeting in which Griffin "showed up unexpectedly" at Plaskett's office on St. Croix. The meeting came around the same time the V.I. Daily News released reports detailing Elite's operations and named both Plaskett and Biggs as participants in the scheme.
After the first news report came out, Nielsen said, Plaskett issued a news release saying several of the contracts that had come under scrutiny had gone through the government's procurement process. Plaskett's release also says that the DPNR would launch its own investigation into the matter and would subsequently publish its findings.
"DPNR acknowledges that some mistakes were made, and that additional due diligence, research and verification should have been done prior to utilizing Elite Technical Services," Plaskett wrote.
Griffin traveled to the territory soon after and visited Plaskett at his St. Croix office. On Wednesday, Nielsen said that he was on his lunch break when Plaskett called and asked him to sit in on the meeting. Though Nielsen added that he did not find Plaskett's request "strange," he later said the "thought had crossed his mind" that Griffin's visit had something to do with the joint federal and local investigation launched in January 2005.
"There was no reason for Hollis to be there, other than the investigation," he said, adding that he did not know at the time that Griffin was wearing a wire supplied by FBI agents. Griffin was also wearin
g a camera hidden in one of his shirt buttons. The tape of the meeting was played to the jury after Griffin took the stand Tuesday.
Though the meeting was punctuated with heated arguments between Griffin and Plaskett, Griffin still remained "uncharacteristically quiet" and let Plaskett do most of the talking, Nielsen said. He added that the "gist of the meeting" was that Plaskett was "very upset about the whole situation" and he "seemed to have been blaming Hollis for his activities and either the work he did, or failed to do."
At one point, Plaskett left the office and went into a nearby common area that contained a fridge in which employees' kept their food, Nielsen added. Plaskett then picked up a bread knife and walked back into his office, he said.
"He was still arguing and cursing with Hollis," Nielsen said. "He did still have the knife in his hand."
Though Nielsen said Plaskett made no moves to stab Griffin with the knife, he added later that he was afraid that the situation would escalate and attempted to "get in the middle" of the feud. Plaskett subsequently chased Griffin out of the office, Nielsen said.
"The knife was still in his hand," he added, in response to questions from prosecuting attorneys.
The trial continues at 9 a.m. Thursday.
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