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How the Brizzi public-corruption case unraveled

Cory Schouten
November 5, 2013
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SOUTH BEND—Federal authorities suffered a near-complete defeat in their efforts to prosecute the players in an unusual real estate deal in Elkhart, a setback that ultimately doomed an ambitious public-corruption case targeting former Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Miller Jr. sentenced Indianapolis defense attorney Paul J. Page to probation on Monday, nine months after a South Bend jury returned not-guilty verdicts against two co-defendants. Page pleaded guilty before trial.

Federal prosecutors and an FBI-led task force had hoped to use the Northern District of Indiana case—and a Marion County case against a former deputy prosecutor—to turn defendants they believed could help convict the former prosecutor for accepting bribes.

But the three-year-old case unraveled when the government's best hope for providing information implicating Brizzi, the real estate broker John M. Bales, beat the 13 felony charges he was facing. And Page and a former Brizzi leutenant who also struck a deal in exchange for cooperation maintained they had no evidence to suggest Brizzi took bribes.

Newly filed court documents detail for the first time the government's strategy as investigators built a case against Brizzi that never made it to a courtroom.

Most notably, Brizzi is alleged to have pocketed more than $48,000 in distributions from his ownership of the state-leased office building in Elkhart, even though he was never officially listed as an owner. Prosecutors had hoped to prove the ownership interest was a bribe from Page, a defense attorney who received favorable treatment from the Marion County Prosecutor's Office.

Of particular interest was a drug case involving a Page client, Joseph Mobareki. Brizzi personally ordered a lenient plea deal for Mobareki and for the return of $10,000 of seized drug money to Page for attorney's fees.

Eight days after the plea agreement and 14 days after the Prosecutor's Office had returned the cash, Brizzi and Page each received $25,000 from their interest in the Elkhart property. Brizzi didn't put up any cash or co-sign a loan on the bulding.

Brizzi and Page each went on to receive an additional $23,300 in distributions from the Elkhart property in 2010 and 2011. The cash distributions to Brizzi were revealed for the first time in a Nov. 1 court filing in a case involving former deputy prosecutor David Wyser.

But Page insisted in interviews with investigators that he gave the equity to Brizzi as a "finder's fee" for bringing him the deal, not as a bribe. Brizzi had heard about the deal through Bales, a friend and business partner who floated the down payment Page used to buy the building.

Page did not disclose to his lender the $362,000 down payment he had received—and would have to repay to Bales—which led to Page's wire fraud conviction. He'll spend two years on probation and pay a $10,000 fine for the crime.

Prosecutors argued the deal violated an agreement between Bales' firm, Venture Cos., and the state that barred the company from direct or indirect ownership of properties where state agencies leased space. Venture had a contract to handle the state's leasing.

But the jury in Elkhart didn't hear anything about Brizzi, leaving a fraud case that seemed to hang on technicalities and lacked an identifiable victim. They acquitted both Bales and busines partner William E. Spencer.

Separately, prosecutors believed Brizzi accepted $25,000 in campaign contributions from the father of a convicted murderer, Paula Willoughby, as a bribe to modify her prison sentence.

But David Wyser, Brizzi's top deputy, told authorities it was he who approved the sentence modification that set Willoughby free.

Wyser agreed to plead guilty to a single bribery charge—for a $2,500 donation toward his run for Hamilton County prosecutor—and cooperate with the government in exchange for leniency. He's facing up to two years in prison and is scheduled for sentencing Nov. 25.

In a Nov. 1 filing, the government described how Wyser accepted the bribe and approved the release of Willoughby, who wound up serving less than 20 years on a 70-year prison sentence.

The early release in July 2009 was the result of a lobbying campaign by local attorney Jennifer Lukemeyer, who has not been charged in the case. She exchanged several emails with Wyser with the subject line "Free Paula!" according to a sentencing memorandum.

In emails, Wyser was hardly veiled about his interest in collecting campaign funds from Willoughby's father.

“What will Paula do to make me feel warm and fuzzy?" he wrote in one email.

“You should convince him to write me a check on behalf of the whales," Wyser wrote in another, referencing the movie Free Willy.

But it was a phone call on the morning of May 29, 2009, that likely sealed Wyser's fate. Based on testimony from Lukemeyer, Wyser called her that morning and said: “I want him [Willoughby’s Father] to give and you can tell him.”

Willoughby's father, Harrison Epperly, wrote the $2,500 check the same day. It was the largest direct contribution to Wyser's campaign during the 2009 reporting period.

Wyser cashed it on June 22, and he filed the sentence-modification agreement the next day. A few months later, Lukemeyer hosted a fundraiser for Wyser at her home, where she says Wyser sought another campaign contribution from Epperly.

Wyser has maintained that he did not solicit the donation but "corruptly accepted it as a reward."

Investigators discovered Wyser had deleted about 60 emails, including incriminating messages between he and Lukemeyer, from his Prosecutor's Office account.

Epperly and Lukemeyer also met on more than one occasion with Brizzi, who is referred to as "The Prosecutor" in Wyser's sentencing memorandum, but investigators failed to turn up any direct evidence implicating the two-term prosecutor.

Federal prosecutors led by U.S. Attorney Joe Hogsett feared the mostly circumstantial case against Brizzi would not hold up in front of a jury or on appeal. So they opted against charging him despite convictions of his business partner Page and former deputy Wyser.

Hogsett in October announced he would not pursue charges but described Brizzi's actions as "unacceptable." In a statement, Brizzi said "Hogsett's baseless aspersions ... are a continuation of his disregard for the boundaries of his office."

Brizzi has maintained his innocence and says the lack of criminal charges supports his position that he conducted his business affairs "both ethically and legally."

Monday's sentencing hearing for Page in South Bend was another setback for prosecutors.

They had argued Page should serve a 14-month prison sentence for a wire fraud count. But the judge scoffed at the sentencing request, noting the crime resulted in no losses to either the lender or the state.

Page's attorney, Robert W. Hammerle, described the offense as an "isolated technical violation" that is actually quite common. The judge seemed to agree, noting that he hadn't seen "many or any" cases with "less aggravating circumstances."

Without a conviction to give Bales strong incentive to cooperate against Brizzi, prosecutors feared a similar ending to a trial of the former prosecutor.
 

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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