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HomeNewsArchivesAttorneys in Fraud Trial Wrap Up Seven Hours of Closing Arguments

Attorneys in Fraud Trial Wrap Up Seven Hours of Closing Arguments

Feb. 25, 2008 — After two weeks of testimony and about seven hours of closing arguments, jurors will begin deliberations early Tuesday to determine whether former commissioners Dean Plaskett and Marc Biggs, along with prominent V.I. businessman Leroy Marchena, are guilty of helping to push through and cover up an elaborate bribery and kickback scheme that defrauded the government of $1.4 million.
Lining up at the podium in District Court Tuesday morning, U.S. prosecuting attorney Michael Ferrara opened his closing arguments by quoting testimony provided last week by Atlanta businessman Barry Bennett. Once the Elite Technical Services scheme started to unravel, Bennett said, Marchena asked him to backdate documents on a $125,000 permit-review contract for Hovensa that Elite never completed work on.
"'We're in trouble,'" Ferrara said, quoting Bennett. "'The boys are in trouble.' Those were Dean Plaskett's and Leroy Marchena's words when the Elite scandal came to light. We're in trouble because we ripped off the people of the Virgin Islands, because we took bribes. We're in trouble because no one wanted to get involved in our cover up."
In their opening statements two weeks ago, prosecutors described the trial as a case of "contracts, cronies and two corrupt commissioners." On Monday, Ferrara also described the formation of Elite Technical Services as a "massive fraud," which allowed Biggs, Plaskett and other co-conspirators to go after government contracts that were "ripe for the picking" and would put hefty kickbacks in the group's pockets.
Once an investigation had been launched into Elite's operations, Ferrara added, Plaskett and Biggs lied to federal agents. They gave different accounts of the circumstances surrounding a 2002 contract award to C & R Environmental Design for the creation of state plans for the regulation of the territory's medical-waste incinerators and municipal landfills, the prosecutor said. The contract had already been promised to PubSafe Engineering Consultants, whose president, David Tucker, agreed to pay kickbacks on a $300,000 Title V Air Permit contract, awarded to PubSafe in May 2001, to Biggs, Plaskett and former DPNR official Hollis Griffin, Ferrara said.
After doing all the work on the Title V contract, Tucker refused to pay the group a third kickback, and further limited their cut on the incinerator and landfill contract to 10 percent, Tucker said last week.
"Mr. Tucker messed with the bull and got the horns," Ferrara said Monday. Tucker's refusal to pay any additional money took him and his company out of the running for any future government contracts — including the incinerator and landfill project, which went to C&R Environmental on an unsolicited bid, prosecutors said.
Zeroing in on Plaskett's testimony, also provided last week, Ferrara reminded the jurors that Plaskett said he "didn't know the specifics" of most of the contracts, and trusted his managers — generally Griffin and DPNR permits director Brent Blyden — to review documents and commence negotiations. The defense, Ferrara said, would agree that Griffin was, for the most part, running the show.
Yet Plaskett gave extensive testimony about the history of each contract and what each project entailed, Ferrara added.
"Does that sound like a guy that isn't plugged into the world around him, that doesn't know what's going on in his department?" Ferrara asked the jury. "So why is Elite the only thing he doesn't know anything about? How is that possible? Don't let Mr. Plaskett have it both ways: Either he was deeply involved in the scam, or he made no significant contributions during his eight years as commissioner."
Dean Plaskett
Plaskett's involvement with Elite — a sham company developed in late 1999 by Griffin and Blyden, with the help of co-conspirators Esmond J. Modeste and Earl Brewley — has been at the forefront of discussion since the trial began. After calling most of the company's principals to the stand for testimony, prosecutors also tried to track Plaskett's finances from the beginning of the scandal in 2000 to its end five years later.
In the midst of awarding contracts and taking bribes, Plaskett bought three new cars in 2004, and commenced extensive renovations to his home on St. Croix the year before, prosecutors said. In the meantime, he and his wife were spending $30,000 more than they were making between 2003 and 2004, prosecutors added.
On Monday, Plaskett's defense attorney, Gordon Rhea, argued that prosecutors had not backed up their allegations with proper documentation, such as bank records, which would indicate how much Plaskett was making and exactly how much he spent throughout the course of Elite's operations. Rhea also questioned statements made by contractor Vionisi Lorenzo, who testified last week that Plaskett paid him in cash for a portion of the renovations, but asked for those payments to be excluded from the contractor's invoices or financial documents.
Before prosecutors offered Lorenzo immunity in exchange for his testimony, Lorenzo said Plaskett's cash payments totaled between $3,000 and $5,000, Rhea said. After striking a deal with the government, however, the contractor's story changed, with the value of Plaskett's cash payments jumping up to between $20,000 and $25,000, Rhea said.
In reality, Plaskett's cash payments to Lorenzo totaled about $9,000, Rhea said, adding that Plaskett refinanced the mortgage on his house and took out an equity loan to cover the cost of the renovations.
"There are statements here that are inconsistent with guilt," Rhea said.
Rhea also challenged jurors to look at the credibility of the prosecution's witnesses — particularly Griffin, whom Rhea compared to a "greased pig" chased after by crowds at a county fair. Griffin, formerly head of DPNR's Division of Environmental Protection, was the "only one" who claimed Plaskett took bribes — an allegation that could not be corroborated by any of the government's other witnesses, Rhea said.
Calling Griffin an "admitted professional con man, thief and scammer," Rhea told jurors they could not convict Plaskett if they had any doubts about Griffin's credibility. As investigators closed in on the players in the Elite scandal, Griffin used Plaskett and Biggs to "save his own neck," and accepted a deal offered by prosecutors in which he was able to plead guilty to only one count of conspiracy in exchange for this "truthful" testimony, Rhea said.
"For him (Griffin) to win, Mr. Plaskett had to lose," Rhea said. "He was King Con."
Marc Biggs
Though Biggs did not offer any testimony during the trial on his own behalf, there was little evidence presented by the government that would implicate him in the kickback and bribery scam, Biggs' attorney, Treston Moore, said Monday. Jumping onto Rhea's statements, Moore added that many of the prosecution's witnesses — including Blyden, Modeste, Brewley and Bennett — never saw Biggs take any money and had either limited or no contact with the former Property and Procurement commissioner while the Elite scandal was going on.
The only one who testified otherwise, Moore said, was Griffin — an admitted "drug abuser, drug user, with a habit that ultimately" led him to rehab. Griffin, in his dealings with Blyden, was at the head of the scandal, and organized Elite as a device "to defraud the government" of its money, Moore said.
"But for Mr. Griffin saying that, there would be no need for Mr. Biggs to be here," Moore said, adding that Griffin, while on the stand, failed to lay out specific dates, times and places in which he paid Biggs kickback money. Moore recalled testimony given last week by Modeste, who testified that he had "had his doubts&
quot; about what Griffin actually did with the money once government checks came in and were deposited into the bank.
Looking back to last week, Moore said Tucker testified about a teleconference call in which Biggs and Plaskett congratulated him on receiving the Title V Permit contract award. However, a subsequent letter to Biggs from Lloyd T. Bough — chairman of an evaluation committee set up to review PubSafe's proposal — showed that only Griffin was there representing DPNR, while Herbert Griggs attended the meeting on behalf of Property and Procurement, Moore said.
Moore added that Biggs disapproved PubSafe's bid on the incinerator and landfill proposal after receiving a letter from another committee member outlining several concerns with Tucker's proposal. Moore argued that Biggs' decision to disapprove was consistent with testimony provided last week by Olga Meyers — Property and Procurement's deputy commissioner — who said that she had noticed two of the department's evaluation-committee representatives give Tucker low ratings, ranging from a 63 to a 10 out of a total 100 points.
"Why is Marc Biggs in this case?" Moore asked the jury. "How do you disprove as negative? In this situation, Hollis Griffin is the sum total of evidence against Mr. Biggs as it relates to Mr. Biggs taking money for contracts. On the other hand, you have the presumption of innocent until proven guilty. You can't convict until you've found sufficient evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. Throughout this whole ordeal, Mr. Biggs has been in my hands. He is a good man and I commend him to you. I hope you will consider everything fairly."
Leroy Marchena
The case against Marchena, charged with trying to cover up the kickback scheme and thwart federal and local investigations into Elite and its operations, is equally weak, argued Marchena's defense attorney, Charles Grant. Reminding the jury of the charges pending against his client, Grant said several pieces of evidence that had come out during the trial had more to do with Marchena paying bribes to Blyden and "dreaming up a plot" to kill Griffin than with obstructing justice.
"These are strange stories and tall tales — the stuff of movies — woven by the defense," Grant said.
He explained that none of the documents, bank records or contracts entered into evidence over the past two weeks had Marchena's name on them. Instead, the defense centered its case against Marchena on a meeting that took place between Plaskett, Marchena, Blyden and former Public Works commissioner Wayne after the Elite scandal came to light, Grant said.
Plaskett came to Marchena to discuss the scandal because he believed Marchena was a confidant of former Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, and because Plaskett feared his job might have been in jeopardy, Grant said.
Once the subject of the Hovensa permit-review came up, Marchena simply suggested that Plaskett find someone to get the work done, Grant said. It was Bennett, after taking a deal from the government, who introduced the word "backdate" into the scenario, turning an "otherwise normal conversation into something criminal," Grant said.
The rest of the prosecution's evidence — including testimony that Blyden conspired with Marchena on a separate bribery scheme, which involved kickbacks on contracts awarded to Bennett for projects going on within the territory — had nothing to do with any of the other charges pending against Marchena, Grant said. Meanwhile, much of the evidence also centered on testimony provided by Griffin, who Grant described as the "godfather" of an organized mafia group of businessmen out of Atlanta, Ga.
Blyden and Griffin were also roommates in Atlanta, while Modeste — who, along with Griffin and Brewley, has already pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy for his role in the scheme — also operated his own business out of Atlanta.
"They were presented to you in order to make the unbelievable believable," Grant said. "They have to circumvent the fact that what you are hearing is polluted, meaning that it comes from a polluted source. Ladies and gentlemen, remember to keep your eye on the ball — watch it."
Jurors are expected to begin deliberating at 8:45 a.m. Tuesday.
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