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Bribery case against former Hillsborough Commissioner Kevin White in jury's hands

TAMPA — A prosecutor told jurors Tuesday that the evidence amassed against former Hillsborough County Commission Kevin White showed a "textbook case" of public corruption.

U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill said it boiled down to White promising special assistance to people who secretly gave him cash, depriving the public of the honest service they should be able to expect from an elected leader.

"This is a case about a public official, Kevin White, who abused his position," O'Neill told jurors, "motivated by greed and avarice."

White's lead defense attorney, however, told jurors that White simply helped people seeking his assistance navigating the government bureaucracy, as politicians are expected to do. Those people gave him money for his reelection campaign, said lawyer Grady Irvin Jr.

That the money never showed up on a required state disclosure form merely points, at best, to a possible violation of state campaign reporting requirements, he said. The federal government should have never spent thousands of dollars investigating the matter, he told jurors.

"They should have never made a federal case out of this in the first place," Irvin said. "They've made a federal case out of a state case."

The 12-person federal jury was handed the case at 1:28 p.m Tuesday after hearing closing arguments from the prosecution and defense in the seventh day of White's trial.

They took with them hundreds of hours of surreptitious recordings between White, a confidential informer, an undercover FBI agent and two alleged co-conspirators, including White's late father. The other co-conspirator, tow-truck operator George Hondrellis, is facing a separate trial, and Gerald White died shortly before his son's arrest in June.

Jurors have transcripts of most of the secret recordings, a copy of the 27-page indictment and one video that shows White accepting and counting 50 $100 bills from the agent, the centerpiece of the prosecution's case.

Prosecutors charge White with 10 criminal counts, including bribery, mail and wire fraud, conspiracy and lying to an FBI agent, dating from late 2009 to early this year.

They accuse him and his late father, Gerald White, of accepting $8,000 and a used Lincoln Navigator from a combination of Hondrellis, the undercover agent and Peter Rockefeller, another tow truck operator who was the confidential informer.

In return, they say Kevin White promised to help the men secure wrecker operating permits fronted by straw-men owners, as well as spots on lucrative lists police call from when they need a car towed.

O'Neill borrowed from former President Thomas Jefferson in framing how he said White criminally violated the public's trust: When a man assumes a position of public trust, he also assumes a position of public property.

They are supposed to represent everybody, he said.

Instead, O'Neill said, White conspired to accept money from a few people in return for his special assistance, undermining the public's faith in its government to represent everyone's interests.

"That is not what we elect people to do," O'Neill said. "That's what this case is all about: The corruptibility of a Hillsborough County public official."

As he did in his opening statement, Irvin promised to tell jurors "the whole story" he said the evidence revealed.

Irvin said the case began with Gerald White, whom he described as a "master manipulator" who ingratiated himself in his son's life when he became an elected official after years of not acknowledging him. Irvin portrayed the elder White as a man readily willing to ask people for money, using his son's name to do so.

He said it was Gerald White, nicknamed "Big Five" for the number of classes he completed after five years at Florida A & M University, as initiating the scheme unbeknownst to his son.

He said he used his son's name in the interest of collecting money from people, namely Hondrellis and Rockefeller.

The two payments Kevin White is captured accepting personally from the undercover agent — $1,000 and $5,000 — were both given and accepted as campaign donations, Irvin said. Yes, the amounts exceeded $500 caps on individual donations or prohibitions against large cash contributions and didn't show up on a quarterly disclosure report either way, he said.

"As illegal as it may be under state law," Irvin said, "(state court) is where it should be battled out. Not here, not now, not ever."

While money was given to White while he discussed his campaign with the undercover agent, O'Neill said the agent never used the words campaign donation. Instead, he said "donation" or "contribution."

Each time, the agent told White what he was expected for the money, help with his towing company — the quid quo pro. And each time, he said, White promised his assistance.

"He said, 'Thank you, man. I'm going to help you,' " O'Neill said. "He had him in his pocket."

Bribery case against former Hillsborough Commissioner Kevin White in jury's hands 11/08/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 4:19pm]
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