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Former Philly Sheriff John Green beats every charge in federal bribery-conspiracy trial

Former Philadelphia Sheriff John Green beat all five charges in his federal corruption trial Tuesday, as a jury also rejected many of the charges against the businessman who prosecutors said had showered Green with bribes and kickbacks.

Former Philadelphia Sheriff John Green leaves U.S. District Court in Philadelphia after he beat all charges Tuesday April 3, 2018.
Former Philadelphia Sheriff John Green leaves U.S. District Court in Philadelphia after he beat all charges Tuesday April 3, 2018.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff photographer

Former Philadelphia Sheriff John Green beat all five charges in his federal corruption trial Tuesday, as a jury also rejected many of the charges against the businessman who prosecutors had said showered Green with bribes and kickbacks.

After a little more than two days of deliberation, the 12 jurors acquitted Green of three of the charges and were hung on the other two, apparently accepting the defense argument that prosecutors were wrongly trying to criminalize a friendship.

Glum prosecutors declined to comment afterward. They could retry Green, 70, who was sheriff for two decades, on the two counts on which no verdict was reached. Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Diviny said it was too early for a decision on that.

The jury did find the businessman, James Davis, guilty on a fraud charge, concluding that he plotted to file a false campaign-finance report that hid his financial help to Green in 2007. It also found him guilty of conspiracy for doing that.  But it found him not guilty of two other counts of wire fraud, and was hung on a third count.

It found him guilty of five income-tax charges, including that he failed to file tax returns for three years and tried in a fourth year to write off the cost of his 42-foot pleasure boat as a business expense.

"I'm relieved," Green, the longest-serving sheriff in Philadelphia history, said in a voice so low he could barely be heard. "In a word, I'm very relieved."

Peter Scuderi, Green's defense lawyer, had told jurors in his closing argument that the government's case was far too circumstantial and lacked hard evidence tying Green's official actions to the many benefits bestowed upon him by Davis.    The defense portrayed Davis, 67, as a tireless entrepreneur who worked closely with Green to revamp a poorly funded and ineptly staffed Sheriff's Office.

After the verdict, Scuderi speculated that the federal case was fatally wounded by a failure to show jurors that city services suffered as a result of a corrupt bargain between the sheriff and the businessman. "Jurors really like to see a loss," he said. "People want to see citizens were being deprived."

Federal prosecutors had portrayed Green as a corrupt politician who sold his office to his "money man," steering lucrative secret contracts to Davis in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions, massive "loans" he never had to pay back, and even a bargain-priced house.

Scuderi scoffed at the house allegation after the verdict. "He didn't get a house on a hilltop," the lawyer said. "He got a dump."

Defense lawyers described Green, a former Philadelphia police officer, as a reformer who tried to reinvent his office to rescue homeowners facing foreclosure, and painted Davis as a critical helper.

The sheriff's job is one of five citywide elected positions, along with the register of wills, city controller, district attorney, and mayor. Its duties boil down to escorting prisoners to court and overseeing sheriff sales for mortgage or tax debts. Critics have called for the office to be abolished and its functions picked up by the courts, in the same way that the position of clerk of quarter sessions was ended in 2010.

In his closing argument, Scuderi told the jurors that the central weakness of the prosecution's case was the absence of evidence of an explicit quid pro quo in which Green agreed to sell his office. Prosecutors granted immunity from prosecution to Green's deputy and then taped her in talks with the sheriff. By then, Green had been alerted to the federal probe by raids and subpoenas. He said nothing incriminating on the tapes, played in court by the defense.

Lewis Small, one of Davis' lawyers, hit the same theme. "They have no direct evidence of a bribe," Small said. "Everything here is circumstantial, and they draw the wrong inferences."

Diviny and his fellow prosecutors, Sarah Grieb and Jennifer Clarke, urged the jurors to use common sense to connect Green's actions to the benefits bestowed upon him — almost always without public disclosure. In his last decade in office alone, Green gave Davis' firms $35 million in contracts, usually without terms spelled out in writing, effectively privatizing his office until his midterm resignation in 2010.

Although U.S. Supreme Court rulings have made it markedly tougher to prosecute public officials in recent years, court precedent establishing proof of a "stream of benefits" can be enough for conviction, even if investigators can't tie a particular gift to a particular act of a corrupt official. Diviny told the jury Wednesday that Green had received no mere stream, but "a torrent of benefits."

Green, soft-spoken and professorial, first made a citywide reputation as one of the early leaders of the Guardian Civic League, the organization for African American police on the Philadelphia force. Davis, before creating his public relations firm, was a journalist with the Philadelphia Tribune, the nation's oldest continuously published African American newspaper.

During the document-filled five-week trial, prosecutors detailed case after case in which Davis had provided financial help to Green — who was paid a yearly salary of $118,000 — both personally and when he ran as a Democrat in numerous citywide campaigns. That generosity included:

  1. Paying for $145,000 in campaign ads for Green, despite a city law that limited donors to a $2,500 contribution per race. Most of this spending was never disclosed on Green's campaign-finance reports.

  2. Pumping $65,000 into the campaign fund, mostly to provide "street money" to pay campaign workers on Election Day. This far exceeded donation limits and went mostly undisclosed.

  3. Renovating a home for Green in Mount Airy and selling it to him at a loss of $39,000.

  4. Hiring Green's wife as a job recruiter and paying her $89,000 over six years.

  5. Providing Green with a $258,000 no-interest loan to close on a retirement home near Orlando. Although prosecutors say Green has left behind a trail of unpaid loans, he repaid this loan after three months. He did so after receiving a $386,000 payment from the city's DROP retirement program.

Diviny said the money often was washed in and out of bank accounts and misleadingly labeled. "It's the strongest evidence that the defendants knew what they were doing was wrong — that's why you conceal things," the prosecutor said.

Small argued that the government had overreached in finding a sinister motivation in Davis' help for Green. Small noted that prosecutors even had raised questions about a $10,000 loan that Davis gave Green in the fall of 2011 — months after Green had quit midterm amid a wave of bad press and hostile audits.

That loan, Small said, "is just where a friend helps a friend."