A north Florida lawyer accused of federal bribery and money laundering charges for alleged dealings with the superintendent of Macon’s public schools half a decade ago took the stand Monday in his own defense, describing the ex-schools’ chief as a swindler who was “a legend in his own mind.”
The lawyer, 71-year-old Harold M. Knowles, a prominent Tallahassee attorney, testified for about two hours in U.S. District Court and told of being a “useful idiot” for embattled ex-superintendent Romain Dallemand.
Dallemand served as schools boss here from 2011 until 2013, a tenure that was mired in controversy. Turbulence from his 28-month term has lingered down the years in the form of civil suits and federal investigations into alleged kickbacks and improprieties that, all told, earned Dallemand nearly half a million dollars.
Dallemand has pleaded guilty to a tax crime in exchange for his testimony against Knowles and Whitby.
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Federal prosecutors allege that Knowles — whom Dallemand met through a school system lobbyist in 2011 — and Cliffard D. Whitby, the former chairman of the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority, conspired separately and jointly to funnel proceeds of school-system contracts favorable to Knowles’ and Whitby’s interests into Dallemand’s bank accounts.
Whitby’s alleged crimes revolve around the schools’ backing of Whitby’s entities that had a hand in the Macon Promise Neighborhood, a public-private venture to revamp education and the economy in a swath of the Unionville and Tindall Heights areas with a multimillion-dollar, federal-grant-aided infusion.
Lawyers for both Knowles and Whitby on Monday rested their cases in a trial that began two weeks ago. Whitby, 56, did not testify.
Jurors are expected to hear closing arguments on Tuesday morning and could begin deliberating as early as Tuesday afternoon, depending on how long the closings last. Trial days have been running from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m.
Monday’s highlight was Knowles’ testimony — though at one point after the lunch break a man on the jury appeared to doze off for several minutes. A woman on the jury nodded off earlier while a character witness for Knowles was testifying.
Knowles, one of the first students to integrate Tallahassee schools, told of growing up there as the son of a school-teacher mother — “my hero in life” — and a businessman father.
As a lawyer now for more than 40 years, Knowles said he first met Dallemand in person at the Florida state capitol in 2011 at a speech given by the U.S. secretary of education. Knowles said he was interested in Dallemand’s Macon Miracle plan, which Dallemand had presented locally as a sweeping educational reform to remedy Macon’s troubled schools.
Knowles said Dallemand was “a legend in his own mind” and asked for help promoting the plan, which Knowles said he believed they could “take national.”
“I thought he was an honest broker,” Knowles testified.
Knowles said he suggested to Dallemand a documentary film company to market the venture and “go Hollywood,” but that nothing came of it after he sent Dallemand an email noting the film’s $87,000 price tag.
Knowles said that at Dallemand’s behest he did legal work and also set about arranging an estate plan for Dallemand.
Knowles said Dallemand told him he was looking to buy real estate in Florida, and that Dallemand at one point in November 2012 sent him $100,000 to hold in trust, money that Knowles said he sent back a week or so later when Dallemand changed his mind about searching for property.
Prosecutor’s contend the alleged money move was one step in a series of illicit transfers to pay Dallemand for his influence.
In early 2013, a few weeks after sending the $100,000 back to Dallemand, Knowles testified that he got a call from Whitby saying that the money Dallemand had sent had come from one of Whitby’s businesses, Postiventures.
Knowles said that because he didn’t want to run afoul of Florida bar rules governing attorneys’ trust accounts that he sent $100,000 of his personal money to Positiventures.
“I’m out $100,000 because of the lies of Romain Dallemand,” Knowles said.
He later added: “The useful idiot that I was, I thought I was doing legitimate legal work for the man.”
Knowles said that after the $100,000 snafu he called Dallemand and asked, “What the hell is going on?” and that Dallemand explained it away as being “all mixed up.”
When Knowles attorney, Pamela Marsh, asked him if he was involved in a cover-up with Dallemand and Whitby, Knowles said, “Absolutely not.”
In another development in the case on Monday, one of the companies that was named as a defendant in the case, Central Georgia Partnership for Individual and Community Development, was acquitted by Judge Marc T. Treadwell.
Ruling on a motion to dismiss charges against it, Treadwell said prosecutors had not provided sufficient evidence that CGPICD had knowledge of the alleged malfeasance, that while misdeeds may have been done using the entity as a go-between that there was no proof it had acted illegally.