An attorney for former Warner Robins City Councilman John Williams told jurors Monday that Williams accepting $1,720 in connection with arranging a truck sale between a car salesman and the police department may have been unethical, but it wasn’t extortion.
But the prosecutor argued the 73-year-old Williams received the money as a kickback while serving on council, brought the purchase before council for approval, later lied to FBI agents about it and then urged the car dealer not to tell the truth about it.
Such were opening statements from prosecution and defense attorneys in the first day of Williams’ trial in U.S. District Court in Macon on charges of extortion under the color of official right, false statements to FBI agents and tampering with a witness.
Williams gave the money back, and the truck sale was withdrawn, according to statements made in court Monday.
Paul McCommon, an assistant U.S. attorney, told jurors the alleged activity took place in July, August and September when Williams was running for re-election on council. He was defeated in the November election.
Here’s the scenario of the alleged events as outlined for jurors by McCommon: The truck sale was arranged by Williams through Naim “Camel” Jaber of Signature Auto Sales. Unbeknownst to Williams, Jaber, a Jordanian citizen, had been an FBI informant since 2002 in exchange for a visa to stay in the country. Jaber contacted the FBI with an allegation that Williams was seeking a “commission or kickback” for the sale of a pickup truck to the police department.
McCommon urged jurors to watch carefully a video-audio tape expected to be played during the trial of Jaber and Williams inside a vehicle in the parking lot of Signature Auto Sales. The prosecutor told jurors they would see the money exchange hands, with Williams taking the money and stuffing it in his pocket “to make sure it wasn’t seen.”
That evening, Sept. 6, Williams handled the agenda item for the sale of the truck that was approved by council, McCommon said. Williams later lied to FBI agents stating that he did not take the money, that Jaber was not involved and that he wouldn’t have taken the money because that would have been wrong, McCommon said.
Tina Hunt, an assistant federal defender representing Williams, opened her remarks to jurors with, “All things are open to interpretation.”
Hunt told jurors that Jaber’s student visa expired in 1999. However, he remained in the country, and the government continued to allow him to remain in the country every year since 2002 by issuing him a S visa. She called it “the snitch visa” that allows the issuance of a visa to those who offer information of “significant public benefit.”
Hunt told jurors the timing for the paperwork for Jaber’s immigration status was drawing near at about the same time Jaber alleged Williams wanted a kickback for a sale of a truck to Warner Robins police. Jaber, who once owned Signature Auto Sales but transferred it to a nephew, continued to work there, Hunt said.
She also told jurors that Williams, who would find vehicles and make commissions off those vehicle sales, was entitled to run a business to “feed his family.”
Hunt noted that police usually purchased vehicles from a dealership in Unadilla, and Williams felt strongly that the purchase and sale ought to benefit Warner Robins -- not another city. She also told jurors the police chief requisitioned the vehicle and council unanimously approved the purchase.
Hunt told jurors that when Jaber first offered Williams money, Williams told him, “I can’t take the money for that. It would bother my conscience. It would make me feel guilty.”
Hunt said Jaber attempted to get Williams to take the money another time, asking, “Can’t you just take it as a political campaign contribution?”
Williams did end up receiving the $1,720, and that was probably unethical, Hunt said. She said Williams later returned the money to Jaber.
“But the question you are decide is whether it is extortion,” Hunt told jurors.
Also, Williams was not truthful with the FBI but “not all lies are material” and rise to the level of breaking the law, Hunt told jurors. In addition, Williams was attempting to protect Jaber, who he thought was his friend, when he called him, Hunt said. In that conversation with Jaber, Williams said he told the FBI Jaber was not involved and told Jaber he did not have to talk to the FBI, according to Hunt.
“It may have been unethical, but it was not extortion,” Hunt again stressed to the jury.
Police chief testifies
Warner Robins police Chief Brett Evans testified that Williams initiated contact with him by e-mails about the truck. Evans said the truck was to be used as an undercover vehicle by narcotics investigators. In two of the e-mails presented as evidence in court Monday, Williams identified himself as a city councilman.
Usually such vehicles are purchased as “emergency” requisitions that are not presented at a public meeting, so it’s not common knowledge the vehicle is used in undercover narcotics investigations, Evans told jurors. Council members are called and asked to sign off on such purchases outside of a public meeting, he said.
In this case, Evans testified he was contacted by an FBI agent who told him Williams was under investigation for allegedly seeking a kickback on the truck sale. The FBI agent asked Evans to proceed with the purchase, Evans said. The police chief said he did not know the FBI agent prior to the agent making contact with him about the sale.
Per the FBI agent’s request, Evans told jurors he requisitioned the $21,000 purchase of the truck, and it went through the proper steps for an open purchase. But when Mayor Chuck Shaheen later learned the required three bids for the purchase were not obtained, Shaheen canceled the sale, and it did not go through.
The court recessed for the day before the defense attorney’s turn to question Evans.
Evans is expected to return to the witness stand Tuesday morning. Court resumes at 9 a.m. The trial before U.S. District Judge Marc Treadwell is expected to take three to four days.
Early Monday morning, Williams, attorneys and Treadwell met in the judge’s chambers.
Treadwell on Friday denied a request from the defense to delay the start of the trial due to Williams’ health. The judge said at the time that he would reconsider Williams’ circumstances before jury selection. The issue was not addressed in open court Monday.
Williams’ wife, Elna, remained in the courtroom throughout the proceedings.
To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.