Saturday, September 17, 2011

Is There More To Come From The Lincoln Plowman Saga?

Lincoln Plowman
Generally speaking, public corruption trials in the Southern District of Indiana have been few and far between. Some observers think the FBI sting operation conducted against Lincoln Plowman was simply an obligatory muscle flexing by the local FBI office to address perceived increasing public restlessness that little was being done to curtail public corruption in the Southern District compared to a number of high profile cases prosecuted in the Northern District of Indiana. That may be the case, and it's hard not to argue that Lincoln Plowman was pretty low hanging fruit. There have been some hints, however, that there may be a wider ongoing investigation of public corruption in Indianapolis that may claim a number of high-profile public officials before it comes to a conclusion.

Something that got little notice at the time was the fact that the investigation into former Perry Township Constable Roy Houchin's badge-selling scheme was being spear-headed by the Public Integrity Section of the Justice Department and not the local U.S. Attorney's office. That was also the case with Lincoln Plowman. The government's lead prosecutor was Richard Pilger, a senior attorney in the criminal division of the Public Integrity Section in Washington. Plowman's conviction included this statement from the Assistant Attorney General in Washington, Lanny Breuer:

“Former Councilman Plowman betrayed the public’s trust by attempting to use his public office for personal gain. He attempted to trade official actions for cash and campaign contributions, but he was caught,” said Assistant Attorney General Breuer. “Corruption at any level of government flies in the face of the ideals upon which our democracy is built. We will simply not allow self-dealing by elected officials to go unpunished.”
It would seem rather odd that the Public Integrity Section in Washington would have time to devote on small fish like Houchins and Plowman unless they had bigger fish to fry. Houchins died unexpectedly the week before he had been scheduled to go on trial in federal court. There were rumors he was about to cut a deal with federal investigators when he was found dead in a parking lot on the city's south side. He supposedly fell and hit his head after passing out and died from a head injury inflicted by his fall. He had been accused of selling badges out of his township constable office. The buyers of his badges reportedly included a who's who of Indianapolis political and business figures.

During the trial of Plowman, the government played hours of recorded conversations between an undercover FBI agent, Mark Aysta, and Plowman, which the government used to prove that Plowman was willing to take money from the undercover agent to grease the wheels for the zoning approval that would be needed to open up a new strip club in Indianapolis. There were some fascinating details that got little notice in the media that emerged during his trial.

While it was widely reported that Plowman had been on the payroll of PT's Showclub in Lawrence since 2005 and had used his position as a City-County Councilor to help influence public debate on the smoking ban debated by the City-County Council over a several year period, there was little mention of who was behind Plowman's hiring. PT's is owned VCG Holdings, a publicly-traded company based in Denver, Colorado that owns about 20 strip clubs around the country. Plowman reported directly to the company's president, Michael Ocello, who is based in the St. Louis area.

Michael Ocello
Ocello is an interesting character. The 50-year-old Ocello got his start in the adult entertainment business working as a male stripper before owning his own strip club and hooking up with Troy Lowerie, the CEO of VCG Holdings, to build the largest strip club empire in the country. Lowerie had his own run-in with the law when he was busted for soliciting a prostitute in Denver recently. Ocello serves as President of the Association of Club Executives, a trade organization for adult nightclubs. He first gained national prominence in 2004 when he launched a national campaign on behalf of the adult entertainment business to defeat the re-election of President George W. Bush. ''We must do everything within our power to help ensure that Bush and his ultra-conservative administration are removed from the White House,'' Ocello wrote in a letter to the adult entertainment industry. Ocello, a Democrat, has also been very politically active in Missouri at both the state and local level on issues of importance to the adult entertainment industry. He gained notoriety when he ran a "Buns For Guns" campaign at his strip clubs, which offered free lap dances to patrons in exchange for their handguns. He reportedly had no takers. Ocello even served a couple of terms on his local school board in Mehlville, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis.

Ocello seems like an unlikely character for a high-ranking law enforcement officer in the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and City-County Councilor representing the city's most conservative district to become involved. According to testimony provided during Plowman's trial by Michael Webb, PT's club manager in Lawrence, Plowman had actually sought the job from Ocello of becoming the Indiana Nighclub Association's State House lobbyist, a position held by veteran lobbyist Bill Powers. Ocello, instead, set up a deal for Plowman to work on the industry's behalf in a role that would not require him to register and report as a lobbyist. It seemed Plowman's primary value to the club's $1,000 a month contract with him was to fight a smoking ban ordinance before the City-County Council. Webb testified that VCG helped spread money around on a public advertising campaign that included buying ads on two local radio stations, printing up t-shirts opposing the ban and preparing fliers to distribute in Indianapolis' bars and nightclubs. The company also kicked in $5,000 to the Marion Co. Republicans to help fight the smoking ban, although the issue has never been a partisan issue.

While the Plowman jury heard hours of recorded conversations between Plowman and the undercover agent, there were also noticeable redactions in some of the recorded conversations that the jurors were not allowed to hear. The government's lead attorney, Richard Pilger, disclosed during a short hearing before Judge Larry McKinney following the announcement of the jury's guilty verdict on both counts against Plowman for bribery and attempted extortion, the substance of the redacted conversations. Pilger said Plowman discussed frequent trips he had made to Costa Rica and the fact that he had ties there that made him a flight risk. The government was also concerned that Plowman's training as an undercover officer and the fact that he was found to possess a large number of high-powered weapons and ammunition heightened their concern of flight risk. Judge McKinney ultimately decided to allow Plowman to remain on home detention until his sentencing hearing, which has not yet been scheduled, because he had surrendered his passport and all of his guns and ammunition to federal authorities.

Tim Durham
The fact that Plowman had made frequest trips to Costa Rica raised some eyebrows. Although it is a popular tourist destination in Central America, it is also reknowned for its role as a center for international money laundering activities. A source claims Plowman accompanied indicted Ponzi scheme operator Tim Durham on several occasions aboard a private jet Durham formerly owned. Plowman mentioned during his testimony that he had provided security services for the homes of some Indianapolis business executives, but he did not disclose who those business executives were. Durham was known for hiring off-duty police officers to work at lavish parties he threw at his Geist mansion before his high-flying world came crashing down in November, 2009 when federal agents raided his offices as part of its investigation of the Ponzi scheme he allegedly operated to bilk Ohio investors out of more than $200 million through Fair Finance Company. Durham once hosted a caucus meeting of the Republican councilors in his offices atop the Chase Tower in downtown Indianapolis at which Plowman was elected as the caucus' Majority Leader--the very offices raided by FBI agents in 2009.

A federal bankruptcy trustee for Fair Finance Company has managed to recover only a few million dollars to date, most of which has gone to pay for legal expenses and other professional expenses incurred in its efforts to recover as many assets for the defrauded creditors as possible. Federal authorities are no doubt exploring as many avenues as possible to determine where all of the dollars that flowed out of Fair Finance wound up. Whether any of the money wound up in accounts or investments outside the country is anybody's guess at this point. The bankruptcy trustee this past week reached an agreement with the Marion Co. Republicans and the campaign committee of Lawrence Mayor Paul Ricketts to return about $60,000 Durham had contributed to their campaign committees. PT's Showclub where Plowman supposedly provided security services is located in Ricketts' community of Lawrence.

Officially, U.S. Attorney Joe Hogsett is saying that he will neither confirm nor deny whether there are ongoing investigations arising out of the activities of Lincoln Plowman or other public officials. It is also possible that he doesn't have an answer to that question because authorities in Washington are being very tight-lipped about any ongoing investigations. One thing that is clear, however, is that the investigations to date have been Washington-driven, not locally-driven. Whether there is a role for Plowman to offer testimony in exchange for a lenient sentence remains to be seen. As a witness, he would be of limited value because he is on record as twice saying that he knew of no corruption--the first time during an interview with two FBI agents following his brief detention after accepting $5,000 cash from an undercover FBI agent. He reiterated that position on the witness stand during his own trial. Nonetheless, he could still possibly provide valuable information to federal investigators if he chooses to cooperate.


guy77money said...

Lets hope that the Feds are not done rooting out corruption in Marion County. But I won't hold my breath waiting.

Marycatherine Barton said...

And some people do not think that the Republicans are in love with money! And where were the Democrats while Plowman was wheeling and dealing and selling his influence on the Council and Boards? Trying to figure out how they could get a piece of the action? Just contemplating.

Paul K. Ogden said...

MCB, local political corruption is a bipartisan problem. That's why the D's aren't saying much.

John Michael Vore said...

I continue to be impressed with the higher-caliber of local reporting across-the-board since returning to Indiana almost a year ago: your reports on the Plowman trial continue the extraordinary service by you. One wonders if bloggers are open to awards for journalism in Indiana? One hopes, as well, that you are noticed by the NGLJA. Great work, Gary.