Witness Hampering

The report made it appear that prosecutors, filled with the spirit of the season, decided to allow Burke and the others the opportunity to roast their chestnuts as free men rather than as a trio of accused felons out on bail.

Two sources -- one on the prosecution side and the other involved with the defense -- now contend the delay was prompted by Ed Shohat, who indicated to prosecutors that the county commissioner might agree to plead guilty for his role in the bribery scheme and become a government witness against Grigsby and Hardemon. By cooperating, Burke would hope to receive a lighter sentence. The delay in issuing the indictment, the sources say, was intended to give Burke a chance to discuss the matter with his extended family, who would be gathering in Georgia for the holidays.

Prosecutors were even led to believe that Burke would use part of the time to fly to Seattle, where a brother lives, so he could not only consult with him but also look over the city as a possible place to relocate after serving his time in prison.

Burke's willingness to consider accepting responsibility for his actions was supposedly sparked by an early December meeting he and Shohat had with prosecutors in which Burke, for the first time, viewed portions of that videotape in which Burke is allegedly caught discussing kickbacks with Grigsby and Gary. Burke reportedly found the tape devastating, and when Shohat requested holding off the indictment so his client could do a little soul searching, prosecutors were obliging.

In early January, however, Shohat informed the U.S. Attorney's Office that Burke would not become a witness for the prosecution. Federal authorities then moved ahead with their plans and the trio was indicted on January 8. Grigsby pleaded not guilty and was released on a one-million-dollar bond. Burke and Hardemon are expected to plead not guilty at their arraignment in February. They were released on bonds of $500,000.

"I am going to expressly deny that either James Burke, or me acting on his behalf, made any type of a proffer to the United States Attorney's Office," Shohat said recently. "That did not happen. It's a fantasy."

The revealing word in Shohat's denial is proffer, which is a legal term used to describe what a defendant could offer prosecutors as part of a deal. It seems clear now the discussion never reached that stage. Pressed as to whether he had asked for a delay so Burke could meet with his family and consider pleading guilty, Shohat demurred: "I am not going to comment on any discussions I may or may not have had with the United States Attorney's Office."

Was Burke ever truly serious about pleading guilty? Probably not. According to various sources, the current view within the U.S. Attorney's Office is that this was merely a ploy by Shohat to stall the indictment as long as possible.

After Gary's antics and the beguiling tease provided by Burke's attorney, this latest phase of Operation Greenpalm has provided yet another odd twist. The case was assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro-Benages. The assignment to this particular judge was completely random, but parties on both sides of the case are wondering about its impact. Ungaro-Benages is married to Michael Benages, a county lobbyist and local political insider. Would this fact favor the prosecution or the defense? Could it raise a possible conflict?

No one seems to know, but it's a strange start indeed to a case that promises only more of the same.

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