The star prosecution witness in the corruption case against Larry Young testified yesterday that he gave the former state senator more than $72,000 because he "had to," but he insisted that the payments were not bribes and that Young performed no political favors in return for the money.
Sounding at times more like a defense witness, Dr. Christian Chinwuba, the principal owner of two health care companies at the core of the case, told jurors that Young did not demand a bribe and the former state senator never used his political office to benefit Chinwuba.
"In principle, I know what bribery is. I know what corruption is. My home country is Nigeria," Chinwuba testified under cross-examination. "If this man behaved as if it was bribery, I would tell you."
"Mr. Young never promised he would do anything?" defense lawyer Gregg L. Bernstein asked.
"Hell no," Chinwuba said.
While Chinwuba's testimony could hurt the prosecution, it's almost certain to confuse the jurors. He provided two contradictory accounts while testifying yesterday, one for the state, the other during Bernstein's cross-examination.
He told prosecutors that he provided payments to Young because of the powerful position the former state senator held, and that he secretly placed him on his payroll because he thought Young could help his company. Hours later, under cross-examination, Chinwuba told jurors that he was simply trying to help out someone in need, the cash did not constitute a bribe and that he'd "do it all over again."
Young is facing nine counts of bribery, extortion and tax evasion for allegedly using his office to receive cash from Diagnostic Health Imaging Systems Inc., a radiology company owned by Chinwuba that was attempting to become a licensed health care company. Young was expelled from the General Assembly last year on ethics charges.
During the first week of the trial, prosecutors called witnesses in an attempt to document a paper trial of checks -- most of them made payable to cash -- to show how the money allegedly went from the radiology firm to Young while he chaired a powerful health care subcommittee in Annapolis.
Chinwuba is the state's most important witness, the only person to claim that he actually gave Young envelopes of cash, some of them taped to the bottom of Chinwuba's desk in the reading room of his Lanham-based radiology company.
Chinwuba took the witness stand yesterday morning. He told jurors that his company was experiencing severe financial shortfalls in 1995, and he believed he needed political help to "level the playing field."
He said he enlisted Decatur W. Trotter, then a state senator from Prince George's County, giving him a $2,000-per-month consulting contract.
Also that year, Chinwuba said, he testified before the health care subcommittee Young chaired in Annapolis. Afterward, Trotter introduced him to Young, he said.
At the end of the legislative session, he said, Young offered to work for his radiology firm as a paid consultant. He said Young drew up the agreement and asked Chinwuba if he would place his political aide, Zachary Powell, on the company's payroll.
"Did you want to hire Senator Young?" assistant state prosecutor A. Thomas Krehely asked his star witness.
"I felt I had to do it," Chinwuba said. "It's not every day that people in high places come down and ask you to employ them.
"Senator Young was a very powerful man. He was well known within the black population in the state. I just couldn't say no. I know that Senator Young was known in the public. I know that he could give me some tips in terms of some of the contracts we were going after."
Krehely asked Chinwuba, who wanted to transform his company into a health maintenance organization, whether he had any discussions with Young about becoming an HMO.
At the time, Young was a key player in legislation to create a statewide managed care program for Medicaid patients called HealthChoice.
"I made it pretty clear to him," Chinwuba testified.
"Did you ever ask Mr. Young to help you become an HMO?" Krehely asked.
"That's a tough question," Chinwuba said.
Although Chinwuba said he was reluctant to pay Young, he said he understood that the former senator had recently lost his job with the American Ambulance & Oxygen Co. in Baltimore and needed work.
But he said he didn't want to hire Young's political aide.
"I didn't see what he would be doing for us," Chinwuba said.
"Did there come a time when that changed?" Krehely asked.
"The senator kept insisting," Chinwuba said.
Despite the cash shortages and bouncing payroll checks at the company, Chinwuba hired Young and Powell in 1995. But Chinwuba said Young abruptly terminated the contract and repaid his $12,000 advance.
"The senator called me and said he couldn't come on board because it would be a conflict of interest," Chinwuba testified. "I kind of felt relieved, somewhat, but I understood it because there were always ethical considerations."
A short time later, however, Young called one of Chinwuba's financial officers.
"The long and short of it was this: He needed the money back, the money he had given us. I said, 'OK,' " Chinwuba testified.
"How do you know he got the money?" Krehely asked.
"I gave him the money," Chinwuba said.
From that day on, he said, Young would frequently travel to his office to pick up payments. Krehely showed Chinwuba check after check made payable to cash, asking him where the money went.
"I gave Mr. Young the money," Chinwuba said.
"Did he say anything?" Krehely asked.
" 'Thank you.' "
Chinwuba said he simply could no longer keep paying Young. He said he wrote one last check on Jan. 26, 1996, had it converted to cash, and gave the money to the former state senator.
"I told the senator this was the last one," Chinwuba testified.
"What was his response?" Krehely asked.
"He didn't take it very well," Chinwuba said. "He said I was letting him down and he's in difficulty and should understand that, and I should remember that if I am there for him at this difficult time, he will be there for me. I agreed with him. Charity begins at home. We black people have to stick together."
Still, Chinwuba said, he stopped the payments.
During the next months, Chinwuba said, he started to hear that Young was "blacklisting" him and his company.
Chinwuba did not elaborate yesterday, but he told jurors that he met Young in an attempt to resolve the dispute at Tony Cheng's restaurant in Baltimore on Valentine's Day 1997.
"It was quite painful and personal," Chinwuba said, asking for forgiveness and privacy for not explaining what took place at the meeting.
Bernstein began his cross-examination yesterday afternoon. He asked Chinwuba how he could know for certain what happened to checks made payable to cash and issued four years ago. Then, without much prompting, Chinwuba appeared to become a defense witness.
"I can't see in my mind how it is bribery," he told the jurors. "With 20-20 hindsight, I would do it again."
Chinwuba said Young "didn't do anything for me" and "I could not see what he could have done." He said Young didn't help his company become an HMO, claiming that two other senators were far more instrumental. Bribery, he said, was the last thing on his mind when he gave the money to Young.
"It did not appear that way to me," Chinwuba said. "It still doesn't."
After taking a break on Monday for Yom Kippur, the trial will resume on Tuesday with Chinwuba testifying and Bernstein continuing his cross-examination.
The trial is expected to last at least another week.