Both Sides Rest in Trial Of Ex-PurchasePro Chief
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
One of the government's longest and most topsy-turvy corporate fraud cases neared a conclusion yesterday as prosecutors tried to heap doubt on the credibility of a software executive by using the words of his former lawyers against him.
Federal prosecutors in Alexandria yesterday urged a judge to convict Charles E. Johnson Jr., former PurchasePro chief executive, on fraud, conspiracy and witness-tampering charges. They claim that Johnson directed subordinates at the Las Vegas company to backdate documents, forge signatures and lie to authorities investigating PurchasePro's accounting.
The case first attracted national attention because investigators homed in on PurchasePro's business dealings with America Online as the Internet boom turned bust six years ago. The case took a peculiar turn last year, when Johnson's first criminal trial derailed after his defense team quit for mysterious reasons. The government later added a new criminal charge -- obstruction of justice -- citing four fabricated e-mails that Johnson passed to his then-lawyers, who ultimately testified against him.
"None of the people closest to the facts of this case believed Junior," prosecutor Brigham Q. Cannon told the judge yesterday. "The only consistent part of Junior's story is that he consistently lied."
Johnson provided several explanations for the fabricated e-mails, including a desire to test whether his highly paid defense team was keeping up with the case, that it was a joke and that it was a mistake. But yesterday, his current lawyer, Yale Galanter, said the shenanigans sprang from a long-simmering conflict between Johnson and his previous lawyer. It was, he said, the act of an "in-your-face Type A personality" fighting to defend his life and his reputation.
"I do not condone this conduct," said Galanter, who recently represented O.J. Simpson on charges related to a hotel break-in. He said that, while misguided, the e-mail did not break the law.
U.S. District Judge Walter D. Kelley Jr., who said he will issue a verdict in the case early next year, regularly punctuated the day-long closing arguments with skeptical questions. "It just doesn't square up," the judge said of Johnson's claim that he manufactured all of the questionable e-mails in April 2006 in an effort to test the attention span of his defense team.
Dressed in a three-piece gray pinstriped suit, with a white pocket square and a metallic tie, Johnson bit on a blue pen, swiveled in his chair and whispered while the government lawyers spoke. He told reporters during a court break that the prosecution's theory was "laughable." Once, he noisily interrupted his own lawyer's presentation to urge him to advance specific arguments.
A Kentucky clergyman who said Johnson had donated to many charitable causes sat in the front row, wearing black garments with a white collar. The jury foreman from Johnson's case last year also listened to part of the arguments, greeting the judge and defense lawyers warmly.
Otherwise, warmth was in short supply. Prosecutors began the day by arguing that Johnson was so desperate to meet earnings targets in March 2001 that he and a few deputies entered questionable business deals and papered over their tracks with forgeries and falsehoods.
Defense lawyers countered that the government had based its case on back-stabbing subordinates who hid critical information from Johnson, then turned on him to win shorter prison sentences. No documents, they said, tied Johnson to the backdating and forgeries.
In one May 2001 e-mail Johnson wrote to a PurchasePro employee, he reminded the man that "you never know what the future will bring, and don't be surprised when and where I will end up and remember I refuse to lose."