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Ex-housing chief gets one break

A federal judge has reversed one conviction against former Tampa Housing Authority boss Audley Evans for lying to a government agency, but ruled that 14 other convictions stemming from a bribery and kickback scandal must stand.

In an order made public Tuesday, U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr. also denied motions to throw out convictions against developer C. Hayward Chapman for paying illegal gratuities to Evans, while expressing discomfort with the federal gratuity statute used to convict Chapman and Evans.

Moody said in his 23-page ruling that "the potential for unfairness in this statute cries for remedy" and urged that Congress rewrite the gratuity law to better define which financial transactions with public officials ought to be illegal.

"It's obvious the judge really struggled with this case," said Frank Winkles, Chapman's attorney. "I still don't know what crime my client committed."

Winkles and Arnold Levine, the attorney for Evans, both said they intend to appeal the remaining convictions. Levine said he thought Judge Moody's misgivings about the gratuity statute would help form the foundation for an appeal.

The original convictions were returned by a jury after a three-week trial in February in which government prosecutors alleged that Chapman and Tampa physician Dr. Patrick Watson conspired to subvert the bidding process at the Tampa Housing Authority with bribes paid to Evans.

The award-winning executive director at the Housing Authority from 1988 to 1996, Evans was convicted of taking $5,244 in carpeting and roofing work from developer Bill Williams Jr. He was also found guilty of taking a $25,000 certificate of deposit from Chapman to use as collateral for a personal loan and $125,000 in payments from Chapman applied to Evans' mortgage loans. Evans was also convicted of making several false statements to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Moody reversed one of those in which jurors said Evans was guilty of signing a government form attesting that 100 percent of public housing units inspected met housing quality standards. Some units were sub-par, according to testimony.

Personally certifying that thousands of housing units met government standards is "a monumental task," Moody wrote, and as it was unrealistic to expect every unit to be problem-free, Evans' signing did not constitute a "materially false statement."

Near the end of the trial, Moody threw out all 45 counts of bribery, conspiracy and illegal gratuities against Dr. Watson, who had loaned money to Evans and whose companies had received contracts from the Housing Authority.

Prosecutors called no witnesses against Watson, and Moody said he was "bothered" by the strictly circumstantial evidence used to indict Watson.

In his ruling, Moody pointed out that the line between the circumstances of Watson, who was freed, and Chapman, who faces as much as eight years in prison, is "thin."

It would be easier to discern criminal liability, Moody added, if Congress would "clearly define the forbidden territory in dealing with public officials" to avoid criminal prosecution for innocent acts.