Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Plowman Trial Evidence Shows The Sleazy Side Of Indianapolis Zoning

On the first day of testimony in the extortion and bribery trial of former Indianapolis City-County Councilor and IMPD Major Lincoln Plowman, the government opened with its most explosive evidence: a videotaped recording of Plowman taking $5,000 cash in a hotel room at the Conrad Hilton from an undercover FBI agent posing as a strip club owner as Plowman's "cut" for his assistance in greasing the wheels for the necessary zoning variance the out-of-state businessman would need in opening a new strip club near the airport on Indianapolis' westside.

The lead trial attorney for the government, Richard Pilger, introduced the government's star witness, special agent Mark Aysta. A pre-trial order prohibited media covering the trial from photographing, drawing sketches or otherwise describing the undercover officer's physical characteristics to protect his continuing role as an undercover officer for the FBI. All references in audio, video or written evidence of the alias used by the agent were erased to further protect his identity. The jury was furnished with the transcripts of hours of recordings made by the FBI in the sting operation to follow along with during the agent's testimony, and computer screens allowed the jurors to view the video and other documents offered into evidence by the government.

As with any undercover operation, there has to be a legend or back story for the agent to win the trust and friendship of his target. In this case, the undercover officer posed as a former drug trafficker from California who owned strip clubs in San Diego and Miami. Another confidential FBI source had met the undercover officer and recommended Indianapolis as a good location for opening up a topless bar. The confidential source would introduce the undercover agent to Plowman, whereupon the purpose became one of learning what, if anything, Plowman would sell him. In this case, Plowman convinced the undercover agent he "had the juice" to grease the wheels to help the out-of-state businessman navigate Indianapolis' zoning variance process.

From the undercover officer's first meeting with Plowman over lunch at an O'Charley's on the city's south side, Plowman carefully articulated his knowledge of the licensed beverage industry and the zoning process as a long-time law enforcement officer, city councilor and a former appointed member of the Board of Zoning Appeals. Plowman, dressed in uniform and arriving in his unmarked Crown Victoria police cruiser, recounts his knowledge of various strip club establishments, who their respective owners are and whether they are for sale and at what price. "I'm the number two guy on the city council, I'm a friend of the liquor and adult entertainment business because they don't have any other friends," Plowman told Agent Aysta. Plowman said he would like to have an adult club down here, referring to his southeast side council district because "I like adult clubs." But he quickly added that he didn't like the women in adult clubs "because all they want is your money." "But, you know, 99% of the time they're not going to lay me, so I don't want to give them any money." He qualified his statement by saying, "I might give them a little cash if they're going to blow me, but it's not going to happen."

The agent quickly connected with Plowman as their first meeting continued. Plowman tells him that his favorite adult clubs in Indianapolis are PT's and Dancer's Show Club, although he cautions him that he never drinks when he's out in the clubs because he is a police officer driving a department-issued cruiser and carrying two guns. Plowman tells the agent that Franklin Township in his council district would be a gold mine for a strip club. My friends Cathy Burton and Pat Andrews are going to love his next comment. "They got the number one and two of the most active community people in the county who live down here, and one of them looks like Aunt Bea, she has a beehive hairdo, I'm serious." The agent reacts, "That's awesome." Plowman continues, "She's my best friend and she's not going to let you put a strip club down here."

The zoning is going to be the toughest issue confronting the out-of-state strip club owner. You might have a liquor license but the proper zoning to operate an adult establishment is critical Plowman explains. "I control all of the zoning boards," Plowman boasts. "I appoint members to zoning, and I did that intentionally." "I know enough to get you where you need to go, or to the right people." Plowman makes it clear that he can do a lot to help the agent land his new strip club if he is interested in dealing with him. The agent picks up the lunch tab for $100 bucks with a generous tip, and Plowman invites him to join him later that same evening at Nicky Blaine's.

Later that evening, Plowman would pick up where he left off at lunch and continue sharing his knowledge of going about getting a liquor license and obtaining the proper zoning for your business at Nicky Blaine's. Plowman encourages the undercover officer to go back to his hotel that night and Google his name. "Shouldn't be too much bad about me on there, but mostly political and police stuff," he tells him. "I'm no Superman, but I'm saying . . . it's as good as a $500 an hour attorney." Plowman shares with the officer intimate information about his personal financial situation and family life. He said his salary as a police officer could change dramatically from one administration to the next so he needs outside income as a safety net. "So that's why . . . and it's completely legal . . . I, uh, do some work for people like you, or do some security stuff if it's there." The agent then flatters Plowman. "You're a powerful man." Plowman responds, "Whatever."

Keeping in mind that Plowman is not consuming any alcoholic beverages while he speaks to the agent, Plowman describes himself as "an unofficial lobbyist" for the liquor and tobacco industry at the State House. "I may be there with their $500 an hour attorney," he says. "I do stuff and I get paid, but it's not like I'm turning my back on a cocaine deal," he assures the agent. "I'm a lobbyist, or I'm helping people get their zoning issues taken care of." He assures him his side activities, however, don't pertain to anything he votes on as a councilor. "Because that would be . . . some sort of corruption or bribe thing." Helping people get their zoning issues is something he does on the side he explains. Plowman tells him he would be happy to help him out, but he might ask him for "a couple of bucks up front." At the same time, Plowman insists anything he does on his behalf will be completely legitimate. He indicates the moment he asks him to do anything illegal that he will tell him, "Mark, I appreciate it, but guess what? We're not friends anymore." He reminds him that Indianapolis allows its cops to work part-time jobs in and out of their uniforms.

Before they depart for the evening, Plowman lets him know he can hook him up with the right zoning attorney and commercial realtor to help make things happen. He tells him about his good friend and campaign manager, Brad Klopfenstein, the executive director of the Indiana Licensed Beverage Association, who he appointed to the Board of Zoning Appeals. He encourages the agent to consider joining his association if he decides to open an establishment up in Indianapolis. Although Klopfenstein serves as his campaign manager, Plowman explains that he really doesn't have to do anything because he represents the most Republican district in the city. As they're leaving, the undercover agent hands him $200 cash. "Well, you didn't have to do this," Plowman says. No take 'em, take 'em," the agent replies. "I'll take it. You've got a couple there, right?," Plowman asks. "Yep, yep, I've got a couple."

Flashing forward more than four months to their final meeting in a hotel room at the Conrad Hilton, Plowman, the undercover agent and two female companions of the agent, who were also undercover agents, shared dinner together at the Capital Grille. Plowman had asked the agent to use an alias in front of the women. He asked to be called Steve because he did not want them to know about his police background. Yet during a conversation over drinks in the agent's hotel room at the Conrad Hilton following dinner, Plowman would let his guard down and forget about his cover. He literally kicked off his shoes and got comfortable. He recounted stories to the women that he had previously shared with the undercover agent of his own undercover work as a vice officer busting prostitutes, in particular a really hot girl that turned out to be a cross-dresser. The foursome made small talk about their favorite music and cologne. They shared an interesting conversation about mancations and bromances. Plowman even shared a story about working down in South Beach and running into Versace at a nightclub near his mansion on Ocean Drive. I've got to say the female undercover agents were pretty good actresses. Plowman also worked into the conversation the name of his best friend, Jason Gaines, or as he called him "Jay-Son because--there's a story behind that." Plowman had explained to the undercover agent earlier how he had appointed Jason to the Board of Zoning Appeals and later to the Metropolitan Development Commission.

The female undercover agents eventually left Plowman and the undercover agent alone in the hotel room to go dancing. Plowman immediately changes the tone of the conversation. "Do we need to talk any business or anything?" he asks. By this point, Plowman had hooked the agent up with zoning attorney Cameron Clark and real estate agent Ralph Balber, who had identified a location on the city's west side near the airport. Plowman told the agent he knew Clark had asked him to pay him a retainer fee to start performing legal services for his zoning work. "Heidi's told me you're sending him a check or something," Plowman said. "Yep, Twenty grand," the agent replied. "Fuck," Plowman responded. "He wants a $20,000 retainer," the agent continued. "No, I mean, no, no doubt about it. I mean, that's just a lot of money. But he's one of, he's one of the best zoning attorneys," Plowman said. "And he's politically connected," he added. The agent also explained that Balber told him he would need to put down a $50,000 escrow payment to hold the property under consideration.

The agent worries that he's going to be spending a lot of money and wants some assurance the zoning matter will be taken care of. "Well, all the Zoning Boards are changing at the first of the year," Plowman said. But you're going to know somebody?", the agent asked. "Oh yeah," Plowman reassured him. Plowman then said he would focus on just one of the three zoning boards and will "make sure that Cam gets it on that Board." Here's how Plowman explained it would work:

You know, for example, if--uh, there's three zoning boards. Say our friends are on board two--and, and , and your case gets assigned to board one, we need to clue Cam--now, first of all, even though we may have friends on board, zone board two, doesn't mean it'll be a sure thing. But, better. So, if he gets assigned to board one, he'll just say, you, I'm unable to make that day on board one, is there, can we go to board two?
Plowman explains to him that there are five members who sit on each board and three votes will be needed for a favorable zoning decision. "If I've got a couple of my buddies up there, or even if I don't, you know, a month, or a month or two before the--we know we're going to--you know, we'll know, there's going to be a timeline," Plowman explained. "So, a month or two before we go, I'll take one, I'll take them out to dinner, one at a time." The agent wonders if a dinner is going to do the trick. Plowman says it will help to have people testify in favor of the zoning request as well. The agent asks if Plowman's friend Jason Gaines will be able to help out. Plowman explained that Jason, who was sitting on the MDC, would likely be leaving the board at the end of the year because of how much time it consumed, even though "he likes the limelight" of serving on the MDC. The MDC would only hear the case if a re-zoning was required as opposed to a variance, in which case one of the zoning boards would hear the case Plowman explained.

Plowman offers further reassurance to the agent in the event the process costs more than he anticipates and he becomes tapped out. "I can probably think of 10 investors," Plowman offers. The agent wants to know how much is needed at this time. "Five and one still?" the agent asked, referencing Plowman's earlier request that he pay him $5,000 cash and make a $1,000 campaign contribution to his campaign. "Well, that's my cut. I'm gonna need a little money to throw around." The agent explained that the throwing around money was in addition to the five and one deal. Plowman responded, "I don't know, a thousand or two maybe to start." The agent counts out $5,000 in cash he retrieved from a safe in his room and handed to Plowman to cover his advance up front. "Alright," Plowman says and he is then captured on video taking the cash and stuffing it in his right pants pocket. Plowman tells the agent he thinks the location chosen is a great choice. "You won't really have any competition . . . The only competition you have over there is Dancers, but they're not a 5-star club." Shortly thereafter, the undercover agent receives a text message. The agent tells him it's from his 11-year old son. The agent steps out to make the call when other FBI agents descend on the room and place Plowman under arrest.

The undercover agent is proving to be a compelling witness for the government on direct examination. The real question is how well he will stand up to tough cross-examining by one of the state's top criminal defense attorneys, Jim Voyles. More on that to come.

12 comments:

Had Enough Indy? said...

Wow ! That's riveting reporting, Gary. Thank you.

I had no idea that a simple zoning would require a $20,000 retainer. Its not hard to win a zoning or variance. I'm sure it makes the lawyers look like they are the best thing since sliced bread, but hey, well over 91% of all variances that went through the system in 2009 were granted. In 2004, the year I pulled all the MDC records, 95% of the petitions that made it to the MDC were approved. Tough job being a zoning attorney in Indy ;o). So, a $20,000 retainer make soooo much sense.

And the description of board shopping - we all knew it goes on. Now we have an insider instructing someone on exactly how it is done. That's as close to proof as we will ever get.

Keep up the good work.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Technically he still has to actually earn that $20,000 retainer. If he doesn't bill the time, he has to give the balance back. Ha, ha...that's the way it's supposed to work.

Seriously, a $20K retainer on a zoning case???

Indy4u2c said...

Corruption is as corruption does.

-Machine politics.

Gary R. Welsh said...

The agent said Cam told him that was just the initial retainer; it could cost even more. If he charged that much for his zoning work, then why the hell is he working as an attorney for DNR now? I think he's got Charlie White's old job.

Paul K. Ogden said...

You'd be lucky to get 10 hours in on a variance case. That's $2,000 an hour. And he said he might require more?

We attorneys are prohibited from keeping retainer fees that are not earned by billing. What is all that money being used for?

Idyllic Indy said...

The money might be used to lubricate and fuel the BS machine that is wheeled into the zoning hearings and turned on as soon as the attorney starts speaking.

nonya said...

Paul, how many zoning cases have you done?

Find a zoning attorney in town (who has done more than five zoning cases). Ask them how many hours an easy zoning case costs to file, prepare and present. If 1 of them tells you less than 10 hours, I'll buy you a case of your favorite beverage.

Plus, the filing fees (which usually come out of a retainer) for such a case could be in the $5,000 range pretty easily.

As the wrestler The Rock used to say: "Know your role".

Marycatherine Barton said...

It makes me so sad to read what this exchange tells us about Lincoln's abuse of power, his greed and lowlife behavior. Why did the federal government target him? Was it because this was not the first time he was guilty of such graft, such corrupt behavior? How many others on the Council and Boards are like him?

Paul K. Ogden said...

Nonya,

Show me an attorney who regularly charges a $20K fee in a zoning variance case and I'll buy you a case of your favorite beverage.

Don't piss on me and try to convince me it's raining. Been around too long for that.

Gary R. Welsh said...

Have you handled any zoning cases, Paul? I haven't so I can't say for certain one way or the other. I always had the impression commercial clients are charged at much higher rates than what persons dealing with residential matters are charged because they can afford to pay more and there's a lot more on the line money wise with the decision. Everything an adult establishment does costs more because there are generally always complicating factors associated with their matters that don't come up in your run of the mill zoning case.

Gary R. Welsh said...

You would have enjoyed this exchange, Paul. At one point when the undercover agent was talking to Plowman about attorneys, he complained about how he got strung out by another zoning attorney somewhere else that kept running up the bill on him. In the end, he spent $60,000 and had nothing to show for it. He did a great job acting out his distrust of lawyers. The prosecutor stopped the tape and asked him to assure him that was just his character and that he really didn't feel that way about attorneys. The whole courtroom erupted with laughter.

At another point, Plowman was telling the agent about the Classy Chassis on the southside being for sale. When Plowman told him it was next to the Flying J truck stop, the agent said he wasn't interested in it because he didn't want a joint that attracted truck drivers; he wanted a more classy joint. During jury selection, one of the questions asked of jurors was whether they had worked as a truck driver. I thought it was odd they were asking that question and an unusual number in the jury pool turned out to be truck drivers or former truck drivers. They were summarily dismissed as potential jurors.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Gary,

I do a lot of real estate cases, but have never had to seek a zoning variance. I still don't buy a $20K retainer, though I admit for an adult establishment downtown would be a much more difficult project and more expensive. But the poster suggested that a $20,000 retainer was common for a zoning variance case. I'm not buying that.

The poster also talked about $5K in filing fees for the zoning variance. Now that I know is complete BS. I talked to attorneys and they were completely in agreement that there would not be $5K in filing fees for a zoning variance. Not even close.

You're right...I would have enjoyed that exchange.