Sentencing for Durrett has been set for September 27, 2012, at 9:30 a.m. before United States District Judge William S. Duffey, Jr.
By R. Robin McDonald
July 19, 2012
A DeKalb County police lieutenant accused of acting as a private enforcer for the owner of check-cashing businesses and service stations across metro Atlanta is on trial this week in federal court.
In exchange for thousands of dollars in cash, DeKalb Lt. Willie Daren Durrett used his police authority to solve problems for businessman Amin Budhwani, federal prosecutors said in opening statements Tuesday.
Prosecutors alleged Durrett participated in a scheme to frighten a business partner with whom Budhwani had fallen out to leave the country, intimidated another local businessman for Budhwani's financial benefit and lied to Budhwani's mistress in order to make her leave him, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Bly told the jury that Durrett also served as a liaison between Budhwani and then-DeKalb Deputy Police Chief Donald Frank, whom Budhwani also bribed. Frank headed the security detail of then-DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones and also led the DeKalb Police Department's homeland security office — a position he used on Budhwani's behalf in return for cash, gambling trips and payments on his car loan, Bly said.
Two years ago, Budhwani pleaded guilty to paying bribes to Frank. Last year, Frank pleaded guilty to a federal criminal information that accused him of soliciting and accepting bribes from Budhwani.
On Tuesday, Durrett's lawyer, Bruce Harvey, told the jury that federal prosecutors have based their case on a string of lies that Budhwani, an Indian citizen who spent years living illegally in the U.S., told in order to mitigate his own offenses as a shakedown artist. Harvey said that Durrett, who worked as a DeKalb police officer for 23 years, chose to go to trial because he is not guilty of the offenses with which he is charged.
Bly told the jury the case against Durrett is built on bribery by a businessman "who had his own private police force." Whenever Budhwani wanted to use intimidation to resolve a personal or business problem, "He didn't call 911. ... He called Willie Daren Durrett direct."
And, after Durrett arranged an introduction to Frank, Budhwani called on the deputy chief as well, Bly said.
What Budhwani paid Durrett and Frank to do, Bly told the jury, "was not what police officers do."
Durrett is charged with participating in a conspiracy with Frank to accept bribes from Budhwani and with three counts of accepting bribes.
According to Bly, Budhwani bribed Durrett to intimidate the owner of Peach State Pallet Co. into reimbursing Budhwani for thousands of dollars in forged Peach State checks that employees at one of Budhwani's stores unwittingly had cashed. After Peach State Pallet's bank rejected the bad checks, Budhwani insisted that owner Stephen Strauss reimburse him for his losses, Bly said. When Strauss refused, Budhwani called Durrett, who, in turn, called Strauss and told him to "make good" on the checks or he would open a police investigation of Strauss, Bly said.
Under pressure from Durrett, Strauss capitulated, He agreed to pay Budhwani $10,000 to $15,0000 — about half of Budhwani's losses — and directed all Peach State Pallet employees to cash their paychecks at Budhwani's stores, Bly said.
Budhwani took a commission for each cashed check, Bly said, and the businessman "paid Durrett to get more money" for himself.
Bly said that Budhwani also turned to Durrett when he decided to end his affair with a Brazilian woman on whom he had spent lavish and increasingly untenable sums of money. Bly said that Durrett arranged to introduce Budhwani to Frank, so Frank could assist in a ruse to persuade Budhwani's mistress that she should drop Budhwani because he was the subject of a Homeland Security investigation. Budhwani treated both officers to dinner and then to drinks and lap dances at the Pink Pony, a DeKalb County strip club, before Frank agreed to help, Budhwani testified on Wednesday.
Frank — with Budhwani listening on a speaker phone — subsequently called Budhwani's mistress, Debora Johnston, and Johnston's husband, David — warning them both to steer clear of Budhwani unless they wanted to become embroiled in the investigation, Bly said. The businessman said he then slipped $3,000 in cash in Frank's pocket as he was leaving. Frank, he said, accepted the cash without objecting.
Budhwani told the jury Wednesday that after he paid Frank, Durrett called him looking for a payoff. Durrett, he testified, asked him, "How do you like our services?" and suggested that resolving Budhwani's problems with his mistress would save the businessman $20,000 to $30,000 a month in expenses.
Budhwani said that when Durrett called him a second time and "started pressing me hard" about being paid, he paid the officer $5,000.
Budhwani enlisted the services of Frank and Durrett a third time after he had a falling-out with his business partner in an Atlanta gas station. The three men then concocted a scheme to convince Budhwani's business partner, Imran Chaudhry, a Pakistani national, that he was being investigated by Homeland Security as a likely terrorist, Bly said.
Chaudhry, he added, was not a terrorist.
As part of the plot to frighten Chaudhry into returning to Pakistan, Frank stopped Chaudhry while he was driving and began questioning him, Bly said. Frightened, Chaudhry decided to leave the United States, Bly said, but feared he would be stopped at the airport as he was attempting to board a flight to Pakistan.
Budhwani then called Durrett, who used his authority as a DeKalb police lieutenant to perpetuate the ruse by escorting Chaudhry through airport security, Bly told the jury. The night before Chaudhry's flight, he met Budhwani and Durrett at the Pink Pony to finalize the plan. While there, Bly told the jury that Chaudhry witnessed Budhwani giving Durrett an unspecified amount of cash in what Bly described as compensation for his agreement to escort Chaudhry through airport security.
Bly warned the jury that Frank's statements and Budhwani's statements about bribes that Budhwani paid have not always been consistent, including whether or not Frank accepted any cash payments from Budhwani.
Harvey, Durrett's lawyer, said that the case against Durrett rests on Budhwani's credibility. Budhwani, he said, is "a puppeteer" who manipulates others for his own benefit. "He lies consistently, and his word cannot be trusted."
Harvey said that when Budhwani sought help from Durrett in breaking up with his mistress, Durrett referred him to Frank, and it was Frank — not Durrett — that Harvey said Budhwani subsequently befriended. Any allegations that Durrett accepted bribes from Budhwani, Harvey said, are "lies."
Harvey acknowledged that Budhwani had tried to bribe Frank. But Frank, he said, refused to accept the cash that Budhwani said he paid him. And although he said that Budhwani had paid for Frank's gambling trips and contributed $10,000 to help pay for Frank's mother's funeral, he did so because the two men had become friends. When Budhwani went to Frank about his business partner, Harvey suggested that it was Budhwani, not Frank, who had labeled Chaudhry as a likely terrorist. Budhwani, the defense attorney said, told Frank that Chaudhry was in the country illegally and falsely insisted he "is giving money to terrorists."
Harvey added, "Mr. Budhwani lies to Mr. Frank. He lies to the United States. He lies every time he has the opportunity to help himself. … Whenever he seeks a chance to manipulate someone, he takes it."
The case is before Judge William Duffey Jr.