Trial Buffoonery

Last week, a local jury said it was not absolutely convinced that former gubernatorial aide George Leckie was a crooked moron.

This was surprising news. Leckie, after all, was so intoxicated with the potential for living off the government teat that he once tried to palm off a swanky resort vacation in Hawaii on taxpayers.

But what could jurors do?
The Department of Justice went in the tank on the Leckie prosecution. The feds lost witnesses and ignored crucial evidence. They stunk up the courthouse.

These are the same prosecutors who have indicted Leckie's former boss, Governor J. Fife Symington III, on 22 counts of banking fraud. The feds had better get their act together or Symington's lawyer, John Dowd, will run them ragged.

The jurors did the compassionate thing when they cut Leckie loose. You don't send a person ravaged by cancer to a prison cell.

Leckie's dropped a good 60 pounds and showed up at court with the haunted appearance of a beagle in the pound's gas chamber.

Leckie was not a molester or a murderer; locking him up would not have served justice. He was just one more political fixer who didn't know the difference between bid-rigging and padded expense accounts. And now he was gravely ill.

He was indicted for his role in steering a contract to administer Project SLIM--Symington's gimmick to make government efficient--to Coopers & Lybrand, the governor's accounting firm. Coopers eventually would be paid more than $4 million for its SLIM work.

The defense took the risk of putting Leckie on the witness stand. The tactic paid off, because the feds neglected to review Leckie's vivid character or his confused relationship with truth-telling.

Leckie, so sick he was sympathetic, played upon the jurors' emotions. Prosecutors did not point out that when Leckie was healthy, his moral compass was so warped that he once drove his car over a bicyclist and fled the scene, his judgment impaired by wine.

In truth, the feds folded their hand in the Project SLIM prosecution when they lost their star witness, Coopers' senior partner John Yeoman.

After signing a confession that he had indeed received his competitors' confidential bids from Leckie, Yeoman was killed.

The judge threw out Yeoman's confession because Leckie's attorneys could not cross-examine a corpse.

Leckie's lawyers had argued that Yeoman signed the confession under duress, that Coopers & Lybrand had threatened to withhold severance and retirement benefits from Yeoman unless he cooperated.

Yes, it's true the Big Six accounting firm pressured Yeoman. The people at Coopers & Lybrand knew full well what Yeoman and Leckie had done.

When Yeoman rolled his car out into an intersection and was T-boned, it was widely speculated that he simply put an end to his misery.

With Yeoman's confession gone, the feds ran up the white flag.
But Yeoman's testimony of fraud, while compelling, was only a small part of this corruption case. In fact, the Arizona Attorney General's Office exacted civil settlements from Coopers & Lybrand and George Leckie long before Yeoman turned state's evidence.

The galling thing about the Justice Department's collapse is that all of the really hard work had already been done by state prosecutors.

Here's what lazy federal prosecutors overlooked in state files:
Ronald Vincellette, a former Coopers manager who helped pitch the Project SLIM bid, and who later sued the accounting firm over a fee dispute, told county and state investigators that his colleagues had their competitors' bid numbers thanks to Yeoman.

"Yeoman had told him [a Coopers manager] who was on the short list and what the prices were . . . we had to be very careful about the information," Vincellette told investigators. "And I remember everybody being warned, and I couldn't even tell you who did it, 'Make sure that nothing ever gets out of that room.' Because we were not supposed to be getting that information."

During the state's investigation of the bid-rigging, assistant attorney general Suzanne Dallimore discovered a pivotal spreadsheet done on the laptop of a Coopers accountant.

"'Holy shit, the smoking gun!' is what I thought at the time. I'll never forget it," says Dallimore.

The thieves at Coopers & Lybrand insisted to investigators that they, and all the other bidders, first learned that they could reduce their final bid at an official search committee meeting on September 6, 1991.

But the spreadsheet Dallimore unearthed was dated September 4. Two days before the search committee legally communicated with the contenders, the accountants at Coopers & Lybrand were already in the process of reducing their bid.

Of course, Yeoman got inside information from Leckie.
Even Yeoman's secretary told state investigators that the deal was wired.
"They knew the numbers," said Marjorie Kendall. "The discussion would be, 'This one came in at this level, at this dollar amount.'"

There were so many Coopers & Lybrand witnesses that were felons, perjurers, swindlers and liars that the Big Six accounting firm deserved its own white-collar dorm in Attica.

Kendall, by contrast, would have made a credible witness because she is a God-fearing woman.

"They kept a running tab. They knew," Kendall told state investigators. "They would write it down and keep track. . . . They were not worried. All they had to do was sit back and hear the numbers and just come in close, or beat the other numbers."

The feds did not introduce the "smoking gun" spreadsheet or the testimony of Ron Vincellette or Marjorie Kendall.

Instead, they lazily relied upon the words of a single witness, Benjamin Kimbrough, to convict Leckie.

And Kimbrough, a Coopers & Lybrand manager, was an admitted perjurer.
For corroborating evidence, the feds relied upon cellular-phone records that showed Leckie calling Yeoman after every confidential Project SLIM selection-committee meeting.

But that evidence was circumstantial.
Leckie's lawyers could not deny that Leckie and Yeoman talked at highly suspicious intervals, but they said there was no proof of what the two discussed.

Leckie insisted on the witness stand that he and Yeoman only talked about fund-raising dinners for Governor Symington, not bid-rigging.

The feds were so arrogant that they did not counter this remarkable argument by Leckie. The prosecutors apparently thought it was enough simply to look at the jury and raise their skeptical federal eyebrows.

If the feds hadn't been so shiftless, they could have made Leckie eat his denial. They could have caught him lying under oath.

According to state records, Leckie turned in expense reports for all his 1991 cell-phone activity. Leckie personally circled all of his calls related to campaign fund-raising. He identified those discussions as private. He made certain the state did not pay for those calls.

In 1991, Leckie did not identify his phone calls to Yeoman after Project SLIM meetings as conversations related to fund-raising for Governor Symington.

Six years later, in court, Leckie changed his story.
The federal prosecutors never bothered to confront Leckie with his own phone records.

Nor did they tell the jury that Coopers & Lybrand lowered Governor Symington's personal debt to the firm by hundreds of thousands of dollars during the time that Leckie was slipping the accountants the Project SLIM contract.

As the governor's personal accountant on questionable financial statements, Yeoman was a key player in the Justice Department's prosecution of Symington in yet another courtroom.

With the Project SLIM case, the feds had leverage to twist Yeoman against Symington.

But with the accountant dead, this opportunity evaporated, and the feds apparently lost interest in Project SLIM.

The Justice Department blew it. Federal prosecutors relied upon Yeoman's damning confession to get the job done. But when the judge sealed Yeoman's signed statement, the feds were not prepared to try the case.

George Leckie got away with the largest case of white-collar fraud in the history of state government.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey