Judge, lawyers debate the proper sentence in Maryland corruption case

Thursday , May 17, 2018 - 11:50 AM

Lynh Bui

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

William Campos and his attorneys asked for leniency at his sentencing hearing in federal court Wednesday afternoon, hoping he could avoid prison despite taking thousands in bribes over seven years as a Prince George’s County (Maryland) Council member.

Campos took the money because he was in financial distress, according to his attorneys who said his exchange of political favors for cash was not a solicitation of bribes. The transactions, they told a judge, were surprising and foolish.

U.S. District Court Judge Paula Xinis was not persuaded and invoked what she deemed a legacy of pay-to-play scandals among county officials before she pointedly asked Campos to explain his crimes.

“This community, this county for decades have suffered under a persistent and chronic perception of corruption,” Xinis said.

Later, the judge interrupted Campos as he addressed the court.

“Why did you do it?” the judge asked him about accepting the bribes.

“My favorite part of being in office was helping others . . .” Campos said.

“You could have done it all without taking one red penny from anyone . . .” said Xinis, who again asked Campos for his reasoning.

“I wish I could give a silver-bullet answer,” Campos said. “I was very stupid . . .”

Xinis sentenced Campos to 54 months prison.

Campos was earning nearly six figures a year and taking regular trips abroad, the judge said in court. And if he weren’t knowingly asking for kickbacks, the judge asked, why did he say he was going to Greece and could use an advance for his trip to one of the people who had been passing him cash?

Where Campos and his attorneys saw a bid for a lighter sentence, the judge saw a “consistent and persistent minimization of what he did.”

In court, Xinis said she needed to impose a sentence that would deter others from selling their public office, particularly, she noted, in Prince George’s County where former County Executive Jack B. Johnson, D, served more than five years in prison for a scandal involving development and extortion that rocked the Maryland suburb of Washington.

Campos, who also served as a Democratic Maryland state delegate, pleaded guilty in January 2017 to accepting roughly $40,000 in bribes and kickbacks in exchange for official favors. Most of the bribery and conspiracy scheme involved Campos’s funneling about $340,000 in county money - including grants intended for charities - to individuals who wanted access to the funds.

“I violated the public trust,” Campos, 43 and from Hyattsville, Maryland, said in court in his first public remarks about the corruption case. “I don’t deny that for one second.”

Campos said he was “young and stupid” and apologized for actions he said he now regrets.

Campos took bribes over seven years on at least seven different occasions between 2007 and 2014, according to prosecutors. In one instance, Campos accepted $3,000 in the bathroom of a College Park restaurant after he agreed to help a business move to the county and also promised to direct $10,000 in government money to a nonprofit that the briber could control. The person making the payoff was a government informant.

Campos also agreed to take money to help a business owner with a zoning matter and took money in exchange for a deal to testify before the liquor board on behalf of a nightclub owner, according to his plea agreement.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Windom said Campos in one exchange accepted money to help fund a lawsuit that eventually knocked a competitor for state delegate out of the primary race.

Windom aired video during the sentencing hearing showing a man handing a $3,000 bribe to Campos, who said he had come to pick up the cash on his way from visiting his mother in a hospital.

“He abused his office,” Windom said. “He sold his office. He prostituted himself.”

Windom asked that Campos serve 71 months in prison, saying the cloud of corruption that lingers over Prince George’s deters business owners from opening there and destroys public faith in government. Johnson’s sentence, Windom said, appeared not to have sent a strong enough signal to deter others.

Johnson served as county executive from 2002 to 2010 and pleaded guilty to extortion and witness and evidence tampering in a corruption conspiracy. Prosecutors said he accepted more than $1.6 million in bribes. He has since been released from prison.

“Mr. Campos’s graft and corruption strike at the core of democracy,” Windom said.

Campos’s case was part of a wider federal corruption investigation of state lawmakers and liquor store owners conspiring to expand liquor store sales in Prince George’s County.

In March, a jury found former Maryland state delegate Michael L. Vaughn, D, guilty of conspiracy and bribery for voting to expand Sunday liquor sales in Prince George’s in after payoffs from liquor store owners.

Federal prosecutors have not described how Campos is involved with the liquor board scandal. But court documents describing an individual who agreed to cooperate with federal investigators in the liquor board probe align with details - such as conversations, promised favors and cash amounts - in Campos’s plea agreement. More than an hour of Wednesday’s sentencing hearing took place under seal and outside of public view.

Campos was elected to the Prince George’s County Council in 2004 and spent a decade on council before becoming a state delegate in 2014. He resigned from the State House after nine months on the job.

At his hearing Wednesday, family and friends packed the courtroom in Greenbelt, calling him a mentor, public servant and father figure to many in the Latino community. They talked about his buying groceries for struggling new immigrants, organizing food and supply drives and guiding students who would be the first in their families to go to college.

Campos began crying when a 24-year-old woman who saw him speak at her sixth-grade graduation called him a “role model.”

Brother John Sebastian, of the Franciscan Monastery in Northeast Washington where Campos attends church and volunteers, said Campos had suffered even before sentencing, by having to face people he betrayed.

“When this occurred,” Sebastian said, “it was very disappointing because there were higher hopes for him.”

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