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Baltimore officers charged in kickback scheme fight back at trial

Justice SystemFBIFrederick H. Bealefeld, III

An attorney for one of two Baltimore police officers fighting accusations that they were part of a broad kickback scheme said Monday that his client referred cases to a towing company in Rosedale but did not personally profit.

Thomas Crowe, an attorney for Officer Samuel Ocasio, said federal prosecutors won't be able to prove that Ocasio took money to refer drivers, and said that the towing company owners, who are expected to testify Tuesday, are making false allegations.

"There's nothing that says an officer can't suggest to someone that a particular place is a good repair shop," Crowe told jurors.

But prosecutors say Ocasio and Kelvin Manrich, whose attorney deferred his opening statement, "succumbed to greed." They added that the evidence includes wiretapped phone conversations, video surveillance and text messages, as well as testimony from key members of the conspiracy.

"Nobody wins when two Baltimore police officers are on trial, but at the end, the proof will be overwhelming," Assistant U.S. Attorney Tonya Kelly told the jury.

Last February, 17 officers were indicted on federal charges of orchestrating a kickback scheme involving towed vehicles, with officers allegedly circumventing a system of authorized towing companies and referring drivers to Majestic Auto Repair Shop, which paid the officers and trumped up damage to vehicles.

Ocasio and Manrich are the last to come to court. Charges against one of the officers were dropped, and 14 others pleaded guilty in the case, along with the owners of the towing company.

According to court papers, as many as 59 officers were implicated in the scheme, which Baltimore police investigated along with the FBI. Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III personally seized the badges of some of those charged, and has said the case proves that his department will vigorously investigate corruption.

At the center of the scheme is Hernan Moreno, who according to Kelly forged relationships with so many officers that their referrals made up 80 percent of his business, requiring him to expand the operation. The scheme, she said, was simple and lucrative for everyone involved.

Crowe said Ocasio was recruited to the Police Department from Puerto Rico, through an initiative to increase the agency's ranks of Spanish-speaking officers. He joined in October 2007 and was assigned to the Southern District's midnight shift, earning accolades for his work.

Prosecutors say Ocasio and Manrich swapped hundreds of phone calls and text messages with Moreno from their personal cellphones, and that they are captured on surveillance video giving Moreno rides to an ATM.

Crowe noted that Ocasio is not accused of falsifying police reports like some of the other officers charged, and was not part of the "inner circle" of officers participating in the scheme. He said there was only one occasion where Ocasio can be shown to be receiving money from Moreno, but the payment can't be tied to towing referrals.

Crowe called Moreno "about as low-down and despicable as you're likely to meet," and said he "corrupted a great number of Baltimore police officers."

"But he did not corrupt my client," Crowe said.

Testimony is expected to last about a week.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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