WASHINGTON -- The Lance Wilson trial opened before the U.S. District Court here yesterday amid charges that the government was racially motivated in deciding to prosecute him for allegedly wrote false bond financing commitment letters.
The former PaineWebber Inc. vice president wrote the letters on behalf of a co-defendant's housing projects.
The co-defendant, Leonard Briscoe, a Florida and Texas housing developer, charged that the independent prosecutor appointed by the Justice Department, Arlin Adams, is pursuing both him and and Mr. Wilson because they are black businessmen.
Mr. Wilson's commitment letters, which the government is charging were fraudulent because they promised to provide taxable bond financing for the housing projects even though PaineWebber never actually delivered on those pledges, were little different from hundreds of financing commitment letters written by white investment bankers on behalf of white developers' projects. Mr. Briscoe said in an interview outside the courtroom.
The commitment letters are needed to qualify housing projects for the Housing and Urban Development Department's Urban Development Action Grants. Mr. Briscoe estimated that out of the perhaps thousands of grant applications submitted with such commitment letters, hundreds of proposed projects and financings are never completed or delivered.
"Why not examine everyone who has written commitment letters and indict everyone" who provided pledges that were not fulfilled, he asked. "Why single out me and Mr. Wilson?"
Mr. Briscoe reiterated his charge that the prosecution was racially motivated during an unusual eruption during the court proceedings later in the day. He also accused District Court Judge Stanley Harris of being prejudiced and a "third wheel of the prosecution" because he has dismissed dozens of pre-trial motions and objections offered by Mr. Briscoe and Mr. Wilson.
"I don't believe I can get a fair trial in your court," Mr. Briscoe charged.
Judge Harris warned Mr. Briscoe that he could be found in contempt of court for his unwarranted outbursts. Later in the day, he ordered Mr. Briscoe and his attorney to refrain from leveling "irrelevant" charges during opening statements before the jury.
Mr. Wilson and his lawyers did not comment on Mr. Briscoe's specific charges. But Theodore Wells of Lowenstein, Sandler, Kohl, Fisher & Boylan, Mr. Wilson's lead attorney, told the court that he also believes the case inevitably will get into "issues of race."
Mr. Wells and an attorney for the third defendant in the case, Maurice David Steier, said that Mr. Briscoe's outbursts in court, if they continue, could bias jurors against their clients and lead to a mistrial.
Mr. Steier, a Nebraska attorney, is charged with conspiring with Mr. Briscoe to funnel bribes to Dubois Gilliam, a HUD deputy assistant secretary who approved grants for Mr. Briscoe's projects. Mr. Steier as his defense maintains that the money he received from Mr. Briscoe was not intended to be transmitted as a bribe, but was for tax-exempt bond advise he gave on Mr. Briscoe's housing projects.
Both Mr. Steier and Mr. Wilson asked the judge to sever their cases from Mr. Briscoe's "We're sitting on a power keg," said Mr. Wells, referring to Mr. Briscoe's unexpected accusations. Judge Harris denied their motions.
The deputy independent prosecutor handling the case, Roscoe Howard, also raised an issue of racism before the court. Mr. Howard, who is black, said that defense attorneys eliminated seven white candidates who were eligible to be jurors during jury selection Tuesday, apparently because they were white. As a result, the 18-member
jury is entirely black, he said. V
"It's clear they were trying to get an all-black jury, and that taints the jury," he said. But the government nevertheless believes "we can have a fair trial" and is anxious to "move forward" with the case,
he said. V
The government in its opening statement yesterday said that Mr. Wilson wrote the allegedly false commitment letters in exchange for receiving business interests ranging from 5% to 15% in Mr. Briscoe's housing projects. The business interests were valued at "hundreds of thousands of dollars," the government said.
Workers on one of the projects for which Mr. Wilson provided a commitment letter -- the Bell Glade apartments project in Palm Beach County, Fla. -- told prosecutors they were unaware of the letter. Mr. Briscoe eventually had to obtain "junk bond financing" for that project, since PaineWebber never actually underwrote any bonds, said assistant prosecutor Daniel Gelber.