In the end, jurors didn’t drink the Romain Dallemand Kool-Aid.
Dallemand, the widely-criticized and allegedly-on-the-take ex-superintendent of Bibb County’s public schools, was the government’s star witness in a federal money laundering and bribery trial that ended Tuesday with the acquittals of two men he claimed had illegally funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to him.
Two weeks ago on the opening day of testimony in the trial, Seth D. Kirschenbaum, a defense lawyer in the case against Cliffard D. Whitby, a Macon developer and ex-chairman of the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority, and prominent Tallahassee, Florida, attorney Harold M. Knowles, had warned jurors to beware of Dallemand’s “deviousness and his treachery.”
Dallemand, Kirschenbaum went on, had concocted a tale of bribes and secret rendezvous with Whitby and Knowles to save his own skin when the FBI and IRS knocked on Dallemand’s door in December 2016. Federal authorities had launched a probe into Dallemand’s finances in the three years after he left Bibb schools mired in disarray, chaos in large part of his own making.
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“The government’s case is built on quicksand, the quicksand of Romain Dallemand’s lies,” Kirschenbaum had said, adding that in the end he hoped jurors would say, “’No thank you’ to Romain Dallemand’s Kool-Aid.”
On Tuesday, Kirschenbaum reminded the jury of his opening remarks. He even pulled out a prop. He held up a container of tropical punch-flavored Kool-Aid and said, “Take some sweet tea instead. ... Set these two men free.”
Three hours later on Tuesday afternoon in Courtroom A in U.S. District Court here, as the jury’s not-guilty verdicts were read, Whitby clutched his wife’s hand. Some of his two dozen or so supporters sobbed. Others sighed in relief.
“Thank you, Lord,” one gushed.
After celebrating with his defense team in another room, Whitby, 56, who was arrested in the case last summer, told The Telegraph that he thanked his lawyers, the judge, the justice system and God “for giving me the strength to walk this walk for the last 15 months.”
“Justice,” he added, “has been served. ... I understand the prosecutors had a job to do and I appreciate they had to see justice done. But in the end, I’m just very fortunate, very happy.”
Asked what it was like listening to Dallemand’s accounts of under-the-table, off-the-books deals, Whitby, who did not take the stand himself, said it was hard.
“The most difficult part of the entire process,” Whitby said. “Just to sit there and not be able to respond. But as you can see, this legal team responded and spoke for me.”
Dallemand, in essence became a foil for the defense. His inconsistencies were attacked. His vague recollection of dates was turned against him throughout the 12-day trial.
While Whitby and Knowles are free men, Dallemand, whose testimony was part of plea deal with prosecutors, will be sentenced in February. Dallemand, not charged in the bribery case, has pleaded guilty to tax evasion for under-reporting his 2012 income, which prosecutors have said included an unexplained check for $100,000. He faces a maximum of three years in prison.
Had Whitby been convicted of multiple bribery charges and a money laundering charge, he faced a 75-year-maximum prison term. Knowles faced a 45-year maximum.
The case against Whitby for the most part revolved around the Macon Promise Center building. The building, formerly Ballard Hudson Middle School on Anthony Road, was a Whitby brainchild.
It became a component of the Macon Promise Neighborhood effort, one that aimed to win millions in federal funding to bolster educational and economic futures in a swath of impoverished Unionville and Tindall Heights in the city’s midsection.
Prosecutors meanwhile contended that Whitby and Knowles had paid off Dallemand to receive favorable business contracts and other rewards, in the process allegedly routing nearly $500,000 to Dallemand with the promise of roughly a million more. Knowles’ construction firm won a $3.25-million software contract with Bibb schools, and in return prosecutors had said Dallemand stood to earn $500,000 in stock in Knowles’ company.
Years on the heels of Dallemand’s tumultuous departure from Bibb County in mid-2013 after serving as superintendent for 28 months, the government built its case. Prosecutors contended they had unearthed a circuitous flow of $100,000 checks and cash payouts that circulated from funds the school system sent to Knowles’ and Whitby’s business interests and back to Dallemand.
The alleged paper trail, however, apparently didn’t convince jurors. And Dallemand proved an unreliable witness.
His controversial tenure and the havoc it stirred lingers to this day. The air of bad publicity that his name alone conjures won’t soon be forgotten.
Asked how the county might mend, a triumphant Whitby told The Telegraph, “My wife and I, we love our hometown. We love Macon and we’re gonna do everything we can to help facilitate that healing process.”
One of his lawyers, C. Brian Jarrard of Macon, later said, “I’m proud to be from Bibb County and I’m proud of this jury and their repudiation of Romain Dallemand. I think they appreciated all that Cliffard Whitby has brought to this community.”
Whitby paused and straightened his navy suit before stepping outside the courthouse, where, with his wife at his side and family members behind him, he told reporters, “This community has been split and divided. We want to do everything we can. We love our community. We want to play the part and help the healing process.”
He then added, to a round of laughter, that “the jury did not drink the Kool-Aid.”
For his part, Dallemand on the stand admitted to lying to the parents and children of Bibb County and taking money he said didn’t belong to him. But what he might say now is anyone’s guess.
Prosecutors built a portion of their case against Knowles and Whitby on cellphone records.
Prosecutors said they linked Dallemand’s phone number — which they highlighted for jurors and anyone in open court who was watching — with several calls made around the time money was allegedly deposited into his accounts.
A Telegraph reporter’s calls to that phone number Tuesday evening went unanswered. An afternoon voicemail message went unreturned.