By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
ABERDEEN – Day 5 began in the federal trial of Oxford FBI agent Hal Neilson, accused of lying about his financial interests in the building, which houses the FBI and two other government agencies in Oxford.
Prosecutors continue their case today. U.S. District Judge Sharion Aycock said Friday that she intends for attorneys and jurors “to work hard” to complete this trial by week’s end.
Attorneys are Rene Salomon and Richard Bourgeois Jr., assistant U.S. attorneys from the Middle District of Louisiana; and Christi R. McCoy of Oxford, and Ronald Michael and Seth Pounds of Booneville, for the defense.
(For a news recap, read Tuesday’s Daily Journal or come back to NEMS360.com.)
This is a rolling account of court action today, filed as possible in segments:
1:30 p.m. – COURT RESUMES AFTER LUNCH
Judge Aycock asks Salomon about whether he has found any sort of documents relating to former U.S. Attorney Jim Greenlee and the Neilson case. Salomon tells her that “we have found some documents” and asks her to put them under seal. Aycock receives the packet of documents and begins her review.
1:52 – Aycock asks counsels to come to the bench for a sidebar. She spends several minutes speaking to prosecutors, then the defense about issues. Then McCoy and Michael appear pleading their case strenuously with her. (McCoy looks like she wants to snap Bourgeois’ neck.) McCoy gives thumbs-up to Neilson. Salomon red-faced on way back to government table at 2:02.
DONNA HEATH – 25 years with FBI in Washington, D.C. Now facilities budget manager, formerly space management specialist. Job is to find appropriate housing for FBI’s field or division offices.
Salomon questions. She says Neilson was part of the process because it pertained to his offices. She confirms her signatures, Neilson’s and others on numerous market survey documents, just like Lee Pearson identified this morning and confirmed that various properties either were to be solicited or not as possible FBI office sites. She said the site committee depended on Neilson for local information about sites, and she gave a few specific examples of traffic concerns raised by Neilson, she said.
She also denied Neilson’s recorded comments that he did not participate in meetings or discussions about the lease sites. She said yes, he appeared to really like the South Lamar location, owned by Grisanti and Covington.
Cross-examination by McCoy – Asked Heath if she worked on other site projects with Neilson in North Mississippi. She said she would have dealt with him in Southaven on a project. On many pieces of property, she could not recall specifics of discussions or where they occurred. She said she didn’t think Neilson ever had an opinion different from hers.
Heath said that despite Neilson/FBI’s preference for S. Lamar property, which later was determined too expensive in the first selection process, he did not express a similar preference for or promote the property at 2109 University Ave., which ultimately was chosen.
Heath also said “there could have been” conversations with other committee members that didn’t include Neilson. She said Neilson knew that anybody with any ownership interest in the Oxford building would be subject to a background check.
On re-direct from Salomon, Heath said Neilson never told her he was the building owner and he seemed interested in the selection process.
3:27 – Heath is excused. Break.
MARY NIX – private Realtor working through a contract with General Services Administration. Lives in Georgia. Went to work with GSA in early 1980s, then its real estate division until 1996. Worked on the Oxford FBI building for the GSA, sought bidders etc. as a leader in the site selection processes.
Bourgeois asked her to walk through process of seeking site for new FBI building. Secrecy is important, she said. She explained about market surveys, to be signed by representatives of participating agency.
On market surveys that show “verbally agreed,” Nix said it just might have been missed during the discussion phase or there might have been questions that needed answering later. But that agencies agree outside of meetings. She said she wasn’t aware of any meetings Neilson was left out of. Recalled low bid was higher than expected, and GSA said to expand delineated area for sites.
Like Pearson and Heath, she identified survey forms and other documents signed by selection survey team members. Bourgeois played her same tapes as others of Neilson talking about survey meetings. Nix said he was wrong about secretive meetings he wasn’t included in, that he was in all the meetings she was in.
Cross-examination by Michael. Asks her about selection process, that after details go out to real estate contacts, the parameters of the project are no longer secret.
He asks her about how market surveys are done. Meets after the survey team sees the property, she said. Nix admits she can’t recall all the details because it was so long ago.
Nix said, that in the end, Heath had the final decision about each piece of property.
On re-direct, Bourgeois asked Nix about where market survey meetings occurred. She said they were on the first floor conference room.
4:27 – Nix excused.
KELLY HAIGHT – Georgia real estate broker, formerly in construction. Works with mother, Mary Nix, subcontractors for government. Lease space for government agencies. (She appeared to be wearing a man’s suit.)
Bourgeois asks Haight about site selection process. She said she was new to the process and was careful about what she did. Says she remembers it very well.
At end of market surveys, she said GSA will make a recommendation and agencies will sign to say they agreed with it. Haight says she was taking notes about what everybody was saying about the property, taking notes on site. We saw all the properties and we went back to talk about the properties – back to the FBI headquarters. Says she organized the survey forms.
Two selection processes were the same, although the sites were different. In second process, Haight identified documents associated with the search. She said no other meetings occurred.
After she listened to recordings of Neilson speaking to Howell, Haight said Neilson was wrong with what he said – no secret meetings, remembered some of his comments about sites. Said she remembered the winning property was owned by Grisanti and Covington.
As for the punch list, Haight said she met with FBI and ATF to develop the list and remembered Neilson on the first walk-through about April 2004, then had contact with Neilson on the second walk-through in September 2004. Punch list did not end there. Still getting e-mails in 2005.
Cross-examination by McCoy. Haight asked about her recollections of process. Questioning was little contentious, with Haight acting a little defensive about McCoy’s queries. She testified about who was or wasn’t at meetings.She said she was “positive” Neilson attended first and second site inspection meetings, which she described as formal.
Haight said she stayed involved with the building construction and attempted to move things along, especially to get final “punch lists” complete with final details. She said that by the time she ended her involvement in the fall of 2004, some of the items still hadn’t been completed.
5:11 – excused.
WILLIAM JENKINS – retired FBI after 29 years. Reported on varied and colorful career. Relieved Neilson as acting agent in charge in Jackson, when Jenkins came to replace him a full-time.
Said in 2005, Steven Gomez became criminal assistant and Jenkins retained administrative, national security, joint task forces and intelligence duties.
When Katrina struck Aug. 29, 2005, Jenkins said he was in D.C., but went soon to Gulf Coast for 10 days, then was relieved by Gomez.
Testified about instructions to Neilson to complete items on “punch list” and to secure space for electrical equipment storage at the Oxford headquarters. Turned that over to Harold Mize, administrative officer, and Mike Turner to consider how to deal with it. Also put people into action about extra space to lease for electronic equipment.
Jenkins said he did not know Neilson was a one-third owner in building and that he wouldn’t have tasked him with certain responsibilities about the building – “because it would have been a conflict of interest.”
He testified about process of “punch list” and which items remain to be completed by FBI or the building’s owner. He also identified e-mails 8/16 with Neilson.
He said he never gave Neilson permission to be a part-owner of the building, and didn’t know of anyone else who did.
5:39 – SIDEBAR – a request to send you home now. Expect lengthy cross examination.
COURT RESUMES AT 8:30 A.M. TUESDAY.
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8:35 a.m. – Judge enters courtroom. One juror (1 of 2 black women on panel) is excused because of lack of transportation. Pregnant juror (young white woman) takes her place.
SUSAN HOWELL – on stand. Investigator with U.S. Inspector General’s Office. Defense begins cross, with Ronald Michael questioner.
Michael walks her through her early investigation into complaints that came to the Dept. of Justice, referred to the Miami office. Also talk about interviews she conducted with people involved with site selection process beginning Dec. 4, 2001 – slightly less than 7 years after the process began.
Howell said she did not show Neilson any documents about the process to refresh his memory. She said he told her he didn’t sign any documents and wasn’t allowed into the selection committee meetings.
Under continued questions, looking at a transcript of the recorded interview, Howell read that Neilson told her he didn’t recall any meetings or signing any documents.
Michael sought to nail down that Neilson didn’t recall those issues. But Howell often came back with more information, to say that Neilson had some recollections of the meetings.
She said her initial investigation came from complaints that Neilson had a financial interest in the Sardis lake house with Dino Grisanti and John Covington, who owned the FBI office building. She admitted that this phase of her investigation did not pan out, although it led her to other questions.
She also said she did not provide any site-selection documents to Neilson to refresh his memory about meetings or signatures about events that occurred nearly 7 years before. Michael also whether she went back to Neilson, with conflicting information, to ask him to clear it up. She said no.
She’s the first person to mention Jim Greenlee, who was U.S. attorney when Neilson was indicted. She said Greenlee provided “some information about Mr. Neilson.”
Out of court, Neilson claims a long-standing feud with Greenlee is the reason the investigation started. Greenlee has declined to comment on that allegation.
Michael spent several minutes and questions to finally get Howell to say that, ultimately, she did not know the whole story of which buildings the FBI preferred. Michael, in his questions, suggested the top choice was on North Lamar, owned by Mike Overstreet, and that as the process proceeded, another desirable choice was the building south of BancorpSouth’s bank on South Lamar. That property was owned by Grisanti and Covington.
At times, the questions and answers between Michael and Howell felt a little antagonistic. Michael was trying to get a specific answer, and Howell seemed to add information to more fully incriminate Neilson.
“Do you know of any personal motive that Mr. Neilson would help Dino Grisanti and John Covington?” Michael said. “No,” Howell answered. “Did anyone eve tell you that Mr. Neilson was going to push any property for Grisanti and Covington? he said. “No,” she answered. Did John Covington ever tell you that Hal Neilson would push C&G property or did Grisanti tell you that? Michael said. No, neither did, was her answer.
“Could it have been that Mr. Neilson just couldn’t recall” meetings or signatures? Michael said. “It’s possible,” Howell said.
10:44 – Michael asked for a few minutes for defense to confer. Court takes 15 minute break.
11:05 – Judge returns.
Michael immediately asks government to present memo of Howell interview with Jim Greenlee and whatever documentation or complaint may have come from him related to Neilson. (Recently, Aycock rejected a defense motion to link the alleged Greenlee feud to this case.)
Defense wants to be able to ask Howell about what Greenlee may have told her. Government says complaint went to its executive offices and then was referred to IOG. They also say they would have to dig through documents to find it, if such a document exists.
Aycock orders prosecutors to diligently search their records for any communication with Greenlee. Michael assures her he isn’t going to say anything about selection prosecution, which she has ordered them silent on.) Aycock says she will examine any documents before she allows anything new to be entered into evidence.
Michael resumes questioning of Howell. He leads her into talking about Dino Grisanti’s agreeing to call Neilson and for Howell to listen to the conversation, which she taped. She said she was in her Florida office and Grisanti was in Oxford, with his attorney.
Did Mr. Grisanti set up the all through his attorney? Yes, she said.
On that call, when Grisanti said the IOG wanted to talk to him, what did Mr. Neilson tell him – didn’t he tell him to tell the truth? That was one of the things he told Mr. Grisanti, Howell answered.
Michael now leads her toward knowing more about Neilson’s efforts to talk with an attorney, now that he knows there’s an investigation under way.
10: 20 – SIDEBAR – (Tony Farese of Ashland is Grisanti’s attorney. Grisanti recently pleaded guilty to bank fraud.)
10:41- Sidebar ends.
Michael resumes questions of Howell. No mention of Farese or Grisanti.
REDIRECT – Bourgeois asks her why she didn’t show documents to anyone before she interviewed them for the first time.
Howell said she wanted to see what they remembered. She also said she believed Neilson made faborable comments about certain sites.
LEE PEARSON – joined FBI at age 18 and was transferred to Jackson in 1964 when field office was opened to investigate the murders of 3 civil rights workers in Philadelphia. Retired in 2003 as office administrative officer after 41-plus years. Was a member of the two site-selection committees in 2001 and 2002 looking for a new Oxford FBI office. (She looks like somebody’s Grama, dressed neatly in a conservative pants suit and silver hair nicely coiffed.)
Pearson, a high school graduate, said she never had any problems filling out her own confidential financial disclosure reports.
Salomon walked her through the two site processes, she identified numerous e-mails with Neilson about them and numerous documents signed by all parties about various properties under consideration. She cautioned him not to contact any potential lessors.
Among the properties considered were the Downtown Inn on North Lamar, the Creme de la Creme antiques on South Lamar, old Ice House on Van Buren, Grisanti and John Covington owned Creme.
Pearson identified an e-mail from Neilson describing the South Lamar property as “desirable.” She said he was an “interested” participant in the process and stated is opinions about the various sites, although she said she could not recall too many details or specifics since it was nearly eight years ago.
The second selection process occurred because the prices were too high on the first round, she said.
Responding to recordings of Neilson saying he was not part of the selection meetings and had little or no input into them, Pearson said that was not true. On cross-examination by McCoy, however, she said the site follow-up meetings were not formal and that papers were sent around the room to be signed, all the while people getting up to take or make phone calls.
Did Neilson ever say he wanted a certain site selected? McCoy said to her. I don’t know what sites were selected, Pearson said.
Pearson also said she was not told that Neilson knew several other property owners, saying in such a small town, she wouldn’t be surprised that he knew many people. She said Neilson did not have any authority to choose the property for the FBI Building, although the committee wanted to please him.
Does his signature on these documents carry any real weight? McCoy said. No, Pearson said.
Do you have any personal knowledge that Neilson violated the agreement in any way not to contact potential lessors? No, Pearson said.
McCoy also showed her a few site forms that said “verbally agreed” without signatures, but Pearson said she didn’t remember from so far back. Pearson said she would not have given Neilson authority to own part of the FBI building, that she didn’t know he had an interest and that she wasn’t aware if Mike Turner had known or gave permission.
She said she expected Neilson to be vocal in the process, but that he was no more so than anyone else, and in the end, she doesn’t remember specifically anyone’s input about properties.
12:20 LUNCH BREAK – court to resume a 1:30 p.m.
(Read Tuesday’s Daily Journal for trial recap, come back to NEMS360.com for updates.)
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