Court upholds conviction of Jefferson County official

Tue Nov 29, 2011 4:51pm EST

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(Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld the conviction and sentencing of a Jefferson County, Alabama, official for corruption tied to the overhaul of the county's sewer system. It was a project that landed Jefferson County in bankruptcy.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a request by former commissioner Gary White to overturn his conviction and found his 10-year prison sentence to be reasonable under the circumstances.

White was convicted in 2008 of conspiracy and bribery charges related to a $3.2 billion sewer system upgrade that was plagued by corruption. The upgrade stemmed from a lawsuit filed by the Environmental Protection Agency over untreated waste being released in Jefferson County's rivers and streams. To settle the suit, Jefferson County agreed in 1996 to fix its sewer system.

White was among five former commissioners convicted of crimes committed while governing Alabama's most populous county.

Alabama lawyer Susan James, who represents White, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

White's "corruption, like that of some of his fellow commissioners, grew out of the county's sewage problem," Judge Edward Carnes wrote on behalf of the three-judge panel. In all, more than 20 people and companies were convicted of illegal acts.

A federal jury found White guilty in 2008 of accepting bribes from a contractor in exchange for continued work on the project. Sohan Singh, the owner of engineering firm U.S. Infrastructure, allegedly began meeting with White in 2003, giving him envelopes of cash totaling more than $22,000 over two years. During that time, the company received 48 new contracts and over $1.1 million in fees.

White argued that the cash payments were not illegal because the engineering firm would have received the contracts anyway, but the appeals court disagreed.

"The record contains ample evidence of White's corrupt intent to be influenced or rewarded," the appeals court wrote. Singh testified at trial that the payments were intended to keep White happy with his company.

White also tried to persuade the court to reduce his sentence, based on his good character, poor medical condition and his age, at 63. But the panel agreed with the Alabama district court, reiterating that the 10-year sentence was appropriate to reflect the seriousness of his crime and deter corruption by public officials.

White is the last of five former commissioners to appeal his conviction. The 11th Circuit previously affirmed the conviction of three other commissioners, including Larry Langford, Chris McNair and Jeff Germany. Commissioner Mary Buckelew declined to appeal her conviction.

Ramona Albin, a lawyer for the government, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Jefferson County filed for bankruptcy protection on November 9 in the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. The county's debt escalated in the mid-2000s when the sewer project's financing soured amid the widespread corruption and fraud charges.

(Reporting by Terry Baynes; Editing by Eileen Daspin)

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