Contractor gets one year for bribery Case arose from no-bid program to repair housing; 'I'm not a criminal'; Judge metes out minimum sentence; 30 years possible


A federal judge sentenced contractor Larry Jennings Sr. yesterday to a year in prison for bribing a city manager to help win more than $1.18 million worth of no-bid work from the Baltimore housing authority.

The father of a former housing authority board member, Jennings was convicted of making $6,500 in cash payments to obtain contracts under the much-criticized $25.6 million program to repair rundown homes in Baltimore.

He was the first contractor to take his case to a jury, rather than plead guilty, in a two-year federal corruption probe of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.

Thirteen people have been convicted of corruption charges, six of them involved in the no-bid program.

Standing to face U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin, a somber Jennings declared his innocence again before being sentenced to the minimum prison term under federal guidelines.

"I have been prosecuted as a person with a total disregard for the law, as a criminal, as a liar," Jennings, 56, said in a halting voice. "I'm here today to say I told the truth. I'm not a criminal. I'm not a liar."

But the judge made clear that he did not find Jennings' defense credible, saying his explanation of the payments "wasn't very appealing when it was served up, and has gotten even less so since it got cold."

Judge Smalkin also said the jury "accepted 100 percent" the word of the government's star witness -- Charles Morris, who ran the no-bid program. Mr. Morris, who pleaded guilty to bribery charges in early 1994 and has been cooperating with the government, was given probation and a $720 fine last week.

Defense attorney George J. Terwilliger III pointed to Mr. Morris' light sentence in urging the judge to spare his client a long prison term. Mr. Terwilliger said Jennings "should not be punished for going to trial and maintaining his innocence."

However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen O. Gavin argued for a tougher sentence of 15 to 18 months, saying the contractor had breached the public trust.

Jennings could have received up to 30 years in prison. His lawyer said he would appeal.

At his bribery trial in November, Jennings told jurors he won the no-bid contracts through hard work. He said he set up two companies -- Elias Contracting Corp. and Environmental Protection Co. -- to help his sick daughter.

Prosecutors presented documents showing how he paid three bribes to Mr. Morris in April, May and June 1993 and then tried to mask the money by claiming it went to a pair of subcontractors. The subcontractors testified they never received the checks.

The trial provided fresh details of the close connections among some city officials and contractors in the chaotic program. Jennings' son, Larry Jr., was a member of the housing authority's governing board at the time.

The younger Mr. Jennings long denied any involvement in his family's companies. But testimony and records revealed that he wrote checks for Elias, balanced the company's books and worked as vice president of the firm.

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