The owner of a Lanham health care company, who prosecutors said paid off then-state Sen. Larry Young to try to help save his ailing business, testified yesterday that he didn't view any of the cash he handed over to the former legislator as a bribe.
Christian E. Chinwuba, a radiologist who owns a Prince George's County-based health maintenance organization called PrimeHealth Corp., testified that he viewed Young as a "very powerful man" but that he paid the former lawmaker for political and business advice and to help Young with his personal finances.
Chinwuba's testimony came on the third day of Young's trial on bribery and extortion charges. He said the once-influential Baltimore Democrat had done nothing to help Chinwuba's company win a lucrative state contract to treat Medicaid patients, as prosecutors have charged.
"I know what bribery is," Chinwuba said. "My home country is Nigeria. You know what happened there. If this man behaved as if this was bribery, I'd tell you."
Based on Chinwuba's testimony, Young's attorney, Gregg Bernstein, asked Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Joseph P. Manck to throw out several of the bribery and extortion charges. Prosecutors called the request premature, and Manck said he would consider it but ordered the trial to continue.
State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli had granted Chinwuba immunity for the trial. He is the only person who prosecutors said can testify to handing over cash to Young, who once was chairman of the Senate's health care subcommittee.
Young's case provoked an ethics uproar in Annapolis. After reports in the Baltimore Sun, the General Assembly's ethics committee investigated the lawmaker, and his colleagues voted to expel him in January 1998, making Young the first senator in state history to be thrown out of office that way. He was indicted in December.
Chinwuba owned a company called Diagnostic Health Imaging Systems Inc. The Prince George's company had offices throughout the Washington area and performed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other tests but began losing insurance health plan clients in the early 1990s. Chinwuba was convinced that the company was suffering because it was minority-owned and sought to remake the company into an HMO to treat Medicaid patients, called PrimeHealth.
He hired then-state Sen. Decatur W. Trotter, a Democrat from Prince George's, as a consultant. Trotter introduced the physician to Young, who also sought a consulting contract from Chinwuba's company.
A month after signing a contract in 1995, Young told Chinwuba the job might be a conflict of interest for him given his position in the legislature, the doctor testified. Young returned $12,000 in fees Chinwuba had paid him with a cashier's check.
But within days, Young asked for the money back--in cash, Chinwuba said. The doctor said he had several company checks written to cash and gave $12,000 to Young during an after-business-hours meeting at his Lanham offices. For the last six months of 1995 and early 1996, Chinwuba paid Young $72,000 and bought him two computers, prosecutors said.
They showed the doctor a series of his company's checks written to cash, some with "LY" in the memo field. Each one, Chinwuba said, "was for the senator."
"I felt I had to do it. It's not every day that people in high places come down to ask you to employ them," Chinwuba said. "Senator Young was a very powerful man and probably still is. He was well known in the black population in the state. I just couldn't say no."
Chinwuba eventually stopped paying Young as his company's financial troubles continued.
"Our relationship soured on the basis that I could not meet his expectations," he said. "There was talk on the street we were blacklisted by him."
Nevertheless, the doctor expressed no animosity toward Young while testifying yesterday. Young had lost a job with a Baltimore ambulance service and turned to Chinwuba for financial help, the doctor said.
"He had the courage to ask for help," Chinwuba testified. "I felt proud to give it to him."