The corruption trial of former Maryland lawmaker Larry Young began yesterday with a Prince George's colleague testifying that he warned the Baltimore Democrat against taking a job as a consultant to a health care company because of potential ethical problems.
Former Maryland senator Decatur W. "Bucky" Trotter, a Democrat from Prince George's County who lost a reelection bid in November, said he told Young that the consulting job could be a conflict of interest because Young was chairman of the Senate's health subcommittee.
The arrangement "might pose some problem," Trotter testified he told Young.
After the warning, prosecutors allege that rather than sign a contract with PrimeHealth Corp. of Lanham, Young demanded money from the company to help it receive a lucrative contract to treat Medicaid patients as a health maintenance organization. They say Christian Chinwuba, the company's owner, paid Young $72,000 in cash in 1995 and 1996 and gave him two computers.
The former lawmaker was expelled from the Senate in January 1998 after an inquiry by the General Assembly's ethics committee. He was indicted in December on bribery and extortion charges and on filing a false state tax return.
Trotter's testimony yesterday in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court offered a small window on the sometimes cozy relationships that can develop between legislators and those doing business with the state.
In his testimony, Trotter also acknowledged that he had a consulting contract for more than a year with the precursor company to PrimeHealth. And, in fact, he introduced Young to Chinwuba, he said. His warning conversation to Young came as the two men talked in the hallway of the company's Prince George's headquarters during one of several meetings they attended there.
Trotter said he became acquainted with Chinwuba after being treated at his offices for cancer. Chinwuba told him that his business was in disarray and that he believed he was discriminated against by state insurance regulators because he is black.
The physician hired Trotter as a consultant, paying him $2,000 a month, helped him purchase a computer and provided him with a Lincoln Continental, the former senator testified. At the time, Trotter served on the Finance Committee, which also oversaw health care issues.
"You didn't perceive that as the type of conflict you did for Mr. Young?" Young's attorney, Gregg Bernstein, asked Trotter.
Trotter said Young's chairmanship of the health subcommittee gave him more power. And he said he disclosed his relationship with Chinwuba's company with state ethics officials. "As long as you disclose in the legislature, you can vote. The problem is when you don't disclose," he said.
That was true in the past when Trotter had his consulting contract, but the law will change Oct. 1, spelling out possible conflicts of interests for legislators. The new law stems from the Young investigation.
PrimeHealth was awarded the Medicaid contract in 1996 and has received more than $16 million in payments from the state. Several lawmakers, including another Prince George's County Democrat, Sen. Ulysses Currie, pushed for the contract because they wanted a minority-owned firm to receive some of the state's business. But PrimeHealth has since been taken over by the Maryland Insurance Department after regulators found hidden debts and mismanagement.
Chinwuba has emerged as a central figure in Young's trial.
In his opening statement to the jury, State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli said Chinwuba would testify he paid Young thousands of dollars during evening meetings at the doctor's office. And the prosecutor said there is documentation of Young making large cash deposits during the same period in his personal bank account.
Defense attorney Bernstein agreed Chinwuba was key but told the jury it was for a different reason. Noting that the physician had received immunity from prosecution, Bernstein said Chinwuba only began cooperating after insurance regulators began investigating PrimeHealth.
He said Chinwuba was concocting a story, blaming Young for extorting thousands in cash when actually the doctor may have skimmed the money for his "own illegal use."
CAPTION: Former senator Larry Young leaves the courthouse in Annapolis, where his corruption trial began yesterday in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.