In secret recording of alleged bribe meet-up, Whitby told Dallemand of ‘witch hunt’

Dallemand, bribery defendants leave federal court after a long day of cross-examination

Former school superintendent Romain Dallemand and two charged with bribery -- Cliffard Whitby and Harold Knowles -- leave federal court Monday, Oct. 1, 2018, after a long day of cross-examination.
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Former school superintendent Romain Dallemand and two charged with bribery -- Cliffard Whitby and Harold Knowles -- leave federal court Monday, Oct. 1, 2018, after a long day of cross-examination.

A federal judge in the bribery and money laundering trial of two men accused of buying the influence of ex-Bibb County schools superintendent Romain Dallemand made public on Tuesday a secret recording that jurors in the case heard last week.

Prosecutors contend the recording captures a conversation about a bribe-related conspiracy between Dallemand and Cliffard D. Whitby, a Macon businessman and former chairman of the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority.

The recording was played in open court on Friday, but the sound was all but unintelligible without earphones, which jurors, lawyers and others involved in the case were given.

On Tuesday, the sixth day of testimony in the case, U.S. District Court Judge Marc T. Treadwell ordered that the public have access to the recording, which is a focal point in the government’s claims against Whitby and Tallahassee, Florida, lawyer Harold M. Knowles.

After Dallemand — whose troubled two-year tenure as schools chief ended in mid-2013 — found himself under criminal investigation by the FBI and IRS in late 2016, he agreed to cooperate. All told, prosecutors say he was paid nearly half a million dollars in kickbacks for helping Whitby and Knowles get contracts or other deals with the school system.

Dallemand at Miracle Rally2.jpg
Romain Dallemand during his tenure as Bibb County school superintendent. Telegraph file photo

On the morning of April 2, 2017, Dallemand wore a recording device to an alleged bribe-payoff meet-up with Whitby at a Denny’s restaurant along Interstate 75 in south Georgia.

Dallemand drove up from Naples, Florida, where he now lives. At the end of the meeting, in a parking lot outside the eatery, Whitby gave Dallemand $24,000 cash, prosecutors say. Defense lawyers have suggested that Whitby was a friend, and the money was merely to help Dallemand, who had fallen on hard times.

The device Dallemand was outfitted with by an FBI agent recorded audio and video. Dallemand testified that he was unaware that the device had a camera, so the recording he made doesn’t show much visually. The audio is not always clear either over the din of dishes and chatter in the roadside diner.

But what can be heard offers a glimpse into a case that, at very least, has cost Macon and its school system untold hundreds of thousands of dollars in bad publicity. And far more financially.

Dallemand has been allowed to plead guilty to a tax crime — under-reporting his 2012 income — in exchange for his cooperation with the feds and his testimony against Whitby and Knowles.

Tallahassee, Florida, attorney Harold Knowles, left, making his way out of U.S. District Court early in his trial on federal bribery and money laundering charges. Beau Cabell

Dallemand faces up to three years in prison when he is sentenced in February. His meet-up with Whitby at the Denny’s in April of last year was perhaps Dallemand’s most fruitful endeavor for prosecutors.

Jurors were provided a transcript to follow along as the recording played, and the judge told the jurors that it was up to them to interpret.

The recording doesn’t necessarily provide a smoking gun, but it is certainly problematic for Whitby. Someone not versed in the case or in school-system business might not catch potential references to alleged wrongdoing, but the tenor of the conversation alone and the at-times hushed, veiled language makes it no small hurdle for the defense.

After the two arrived at Denny’s, which is part of a Pilot Flying J travel plaza just north of the Florida border, Whitby ordered coffee with cream, two scrambled eggs and a bowl of grits. Dallemand just had coffee.

“You and I agreed,” Whitby can be heard saying soon after they were seated, “the original deal was 10 for 10 years.”

Prosecutors allege that Dallemand had in 2012 gained school board approval of funding for an agreement that would send $1 million a year for 10 years to the Macon Promise Neighborhood. The Promise Neighborhood was a private-public partnership to revive an economically depressed swath around Unionville, and Whitby was executive director of the effort.

In return, the feds say, Dallemand was to receive 10 percent of that annual $1 millon for 10 years.

“The first year you left … they canceled that,” Whitby told Dallemand. “So we couldn’t even get to the 10 years. They killed that the first year you left.”

Dallemand then spoke of his personal life, how in the wake of the school-system controversy he was virtually unemployable.

“I need you to understand where I am ... and what’s going on with me,” he said to Whitby. “I have nobody else to talk to or vent to but you. ... No one has sacrificed more to make this deal happen.”

“What deal?” Whitby said. “What deal?”

“This Promise Neighborhood,” Dallemand said.

Whitby, though it is unclear to what he is referring to, later said, “This here is 100 percent legal.”

The indictment of Cliffard Whitby and Harold Knowles involves the Bibb County School District, former superintendent Romain Dallemand and several other organizations. This video explains the basic information needed to understand the court case.

Dallemand responded by telling of his hardships, “that no one has sacrificed more to make this happen but me, OK? ... You also have to agree that starting with the Promise Neighborhood ... the original deal based on what you have was 10 percent.”

“Off of this,” Whitby said, as the sound of tapping on the table can be heard.

Dallemand testified that Whitby was jotting numbers on a paper place mat and pointing to the figures as the pair talked.

Whitby then spoke of “10 percent carved out,” and Dallemand said, “I’m with you,” before reiterating that he had fallen on hard times.

“S--- happened,” Dallemand said to Whitby. “I fell on my sword, as you used to say. My career is (expletive). ... You want to know what I’m doing for a living? Driving Uber. Driving (expletive) Uber.”

Whitby said, “I couldn’t draw a dime until after 10 years on this deal. ... What did I get out of this? ... Not one ... dime.”

Then, possibly referring to a multimillion-dollar civil lawsuit the Bibb schools filed over allegedly fraudulent technology purchases made during Dallemand’s tenure, Whitby said, “We’ve got to get past this bulls--- witch hunt of a civil suit.”

Later, Dallemand mentioned the 10 percent per year that he said he stood to receive as “a risk — but it was one that I was willing to take.”

Further on in the conversation, though it is not clear to what he may be referring, Whitby told Dallemand, “They cannot prove you have done anything illegal. Even if they say it was stupid. ... That’s the key.”

He went on to tell Dallemand, “You can’t let them break your spirit. ... Your thumbprint changed s--- in a real way in Macon.”

Testimony in the trial resumes at 8 a.m. Wednesday.