The V.I. District Court trial of a former Internal Revenue Bureau director, Louis “Lolo” Willis, began Monday with opening arguments that looked at Willis’ tenure as executive director at the V.I. Legislature and improvements he made to the building, including the creation of a beach and internal repairs.
Prosecutors argued that the case – the second still pending against Willis – shows a pattern of corrupt behavior, which illustrates “the Lolo Willis way” of doing business, while defense attorneys said that the prosecution’s three key witnesses will not be able to show that Willis extorted them in any way.
Willis is charged on six counts, three each of federal programs bribery and “extortion under color of official right.”
The high profile trial, expected to last the rest of the week, brought in about 25 people Monday, including several sitting senators, local contractors and witnesses that will be expected to take the stand over the next few days.
Right after the jury was selected, opening arguments were halted by a discussion at the bench between defense and government attorneys over using evidence – including testimony from some of the witnesses in the courtroom – from 2003 (when Willis was IRB director) to show a long-term pattern of corruption.
Government attorneys said they weren’t “shooting in the dark” by wanting to make the connection, which they said allegedly centers on one of the same contractors Willis is said to have bribed during his time at the Legislature. However, Willis defense attorney Daniel Cervallos said the alleged evidence would show “tremendous prejudice” against Willis and keep the jury from making a fair decision.
District Court Judge Curtis Gomez prevented the government from referencing the 2003 connection during opening arguments, but said he would deal with any other references that come up about it during the trial on a case by case basis.
Cervallos also motioned to suppress statements made by one contractor who claims to have a check from Willis, and said the contractor would not be able to say on the stand what the check was for, who it was supposed to go to, or why it showed any evidence of corruption on the part of his client.
Prosecuting attorney Justin Weitz didn’t let the discussion keep him from making his point during opening arguments, however, and immediately launched into a description of Willis’ tenure at the Senate.
“There are two ways to do your job: the upfront way, where everyone knows what’s going on, and then there’s the ‘Lolo Willis way,’” he said, describing a system of alleged bribery, distrust and corruption where Willis used his position at the Senate to get his own personal needs and expenses paid for.
Weitz looked at Willis’ involvement with three contractors during his time at the Senate, from 2009-2012, and started first with Alvin Williams Sr., the frontman for Ace Construction, who Weitz said was hired to remove a set of tree roots from in front of the Legislature and allegedly ended up paying $3,000 to cover what Willis owed in back-payments for his mortage.
A second contractor, Weitz said, was bribed three times by Willis and ended up paying $10,000 to Better Roads Corp to complete work done on Willis’ driveway; while a third contractor also ended up paying Willis $5,000 out of fear that he would lose his contract for work at the Legislature, Weitz said.
In all of those cases, however, there were no written contracts, making it hard for the contractors to collect on all legitimate work done at the Senate, Weitz said.
In his opening, Cervallos countered that the lack of written contracts makes it hard for the government to prove its case. Looking back at Willis’ time at the Senate, Cervallos argued that Willis reported to then Senate President Louis P. Hill and was charged with improving the facility without being given any clear direction or plan.
Willis also had the “monumental task” of completing the redesign without any clear procurement or bidding process in place, and Cervallos said the government’s own witnesses would be able to testify to the “clear” lack of procedures and an environment where “verbal agreements” with vendors was commonplace.
“The ‘Lolo Willis way’ is simply getting things done,” he said. “He had to gut the Senate and redesign it and every contract that Mr. Willis went into was for the benefit of the Legislature and the people.”
Cervallos also argued that each of the three contractors would not be able to produce any hard evidence other than their own statements and allegations of bribery. Williams had a contract with the government but wouldn’t be able to share where the money went or produce any paperwork, while Frank James – the contractor that allegedly paid the $10,000 to Better Roads – would be able to show the check, but would later have to admit that it was money he allegedly loaned Willis for the work on his driveway, Cervallos said.
The testimony of the three contractors is the basis of the government’s case, but there’s no physical proof to back up their claims, Cervallos concluded.
The case will continue Tuesday in District Court.