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US: Ex-Atlanta Mayor on Trial for Corruption

January 24th, 2006

Former Mayor Bill Campbell treated city contractors like "human ATMs," taking tens of thousands of dollars in cash and gifts in exchange for favors, prosecutors told jurors Monday in opening statements at his federal corruption trial.

Campbell's attorneys countered that he would never have abused his elected position because of his lifelong dedication to civil rights and public service.

Before opening statements, U.S. marshals quieted dozens of Campbell supporters who were singing "We Shall Overcome" in the hallway outside the courtroom.

Campbell, once considered a rising star in the national Democratic Party, is charged with racketeering, bribery and fraud.

Money he allegedly pocketed included $50,000 in cash from a strip club operator who wanted help getting a liquor license and $55,000 from a computer company vying for a city contract. Campbell also allegedly accepted an all-expenses-paid trip to Paris worth nearly $13,000 from a water company.

The 2004 indictments against Campbell, 52, were the result of a seven-year federal probe that led to the convictions of 10 city officials or contractors. Some are expected to testify against him.

Prosecutor Sally Yates said that while in office from 1994 to 2002, Campbell and his associates made it clear to contractors that they had to "pay to play."

Yates cited Campbell's bank records that showed a drop-off in ATM withdrawals from his personal bank accounts -- from up to $20,000 a year to a mere $69 a year. She pinned that on Campbell's taking payoffs, and of using city contractors as his "human ATMs."

Lead defense attorney Billy Martin shook Campbell's hand before making his opening remarks.

"Bill Campbell has been waiting for this moment to tell his side of the story," Martin said. "He may have done some things he's not proud of, but it was not bribery and it was not illegal."

Among his shortcomings may have been extramarital affairs while in office, which prosecutors brought up despite assertions that the trial is not about Campbell's personal life.

Defense attorneys urged jurors to leave judgment on those matters to Campbell's wife of 28 years, who sat a few rows behind him.

Martin characterized Campbell as a man who sought a life of public service from age 7, when he integrated the Raleigh, North Carolina, public school system. As a lawyer, he served a stint at the federal Justice Department.

He also served the city for 20 years, as city councilman and then as mayor -- a noble choice for a talented lawyer who didn't need City Hall to earn a six-figure salary, Martin said.

Although Campbell made bad choices in trusting people who committed crimes under his watch, he was not aware of their activities, Martin said. "How does the mayor of any city know what their employees are doing?" he asked the jury.


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