On Friday, January 17, 2013, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia announced that Neil S. Rodgers, a former District of Columbia government official, was indicted on federal charges stemming from his role in channeling $110,000 in youth and drug prevention grant funds used to pay for an inaugural ball.

Rodgers, 61, of Washington, D.C., served as the Committee Director of the Council of the District of Columbia’s Committee on Libraries, Parks, Recreation and Planning. He was indicted on three felony charges, including one count each of theft concerning programs receiving federal funds, wire fraud, and first-degree fraud. Rodgers faces a maximum sentence of 20 years of incarceration if convicted of all charges.

Six others have pled guilty to charges in the overall investigation into activities involving former Council Member Harry L. Thomas, Jr.  Thomas pled guilty in January 2012 to charges stemming from a scheme in which he used more than $350,000 in taxpayers’ money that was earmarked for the arts, youth recreation, and summer programs for his own personal benefit, including paying for vehicles, clothing and trips. He resigned in January 2012 as a condition of his plea agreement and is now serving a 38-month prison sentence.

The others who have pled guilty include James Garvin and Marshall D. Banks, leaders of one of the non-profits used in the scheme. Both men, from the Langston in the 21st Century Foundation, pled guilty to misprision of a felony, a charge holding them accountable for failing to report and concealing the misappropriation of $392,000 in government grants.  Additionally, Danita C. Doleman, the president of Youth Technology Institute, pled guilty to filing a false tax return in connection with her assistance in funneling public money to pay for the 51st State Inaugural Ball. Millicent D. West, the former director and chief executive officer of a non-profit organization that promotes youth opportunities, pled guilty to a criminal tax charge for her role in channeling the youth grant funds to pay for the ball. Finally, Ayawna Webster, an aide who also worked as a chief of staff for Thomas, pled guilty to attempting to interfere with the administration of the Internal Revenue Service laws.

The charges against Rodgers deal with his role in securing funds for the 51st State Inaugural Ball, held on Jan. 20, 2009 in the Wilson Building. Thomas was closely involved in the planning of the event. In addition to her work duties, Ayawna Webster was the president of a local chapter of a political organization. She and her political organization served as the host of the ball, and she then organized the event, at Thomas’s direction.

Ticket sales and other contributions failed to raise enough money to pay the expenses associated with the 51st State Inaugural Ball. Following the ball, Webster’s political organization owed vendors approximately $100,000. According to the indictment, Rodgers allegedly participated in a scheme to channel money through a grant from the public-private partnership, meant for youths, to Webster’s political organization so that these expenses would be paid.

The alleged plan hit an obstacle, however, when questions were raised about the legality of granting money to a political organization. The grant recipient was changed to the Youth Technology Institute, another non-profit organization.  The Government contends that Rodgers knew that this organization had no involvement with the ball, and that he requested $120,000 in grant funds on its behalf. On Feb. 5, 2009, based on the grant paperwork submitted by Rodgers, the public-private partnership issued a check in the amount of $110,000 to the Youth Technology Institute, the indictment alleges.

However, as alleged by the Government, after the grant was issued, the Youth Technology Institute immediately forwarded nearly the entire amount to Webster’s political organization, which paid expenses from the 51st State Inaugural Ball.

Critical to the analysis of Mr. Rodgers’ case will be his knowledge at the time he requested the $120,000 in grant funds.  To obtain a fraud conviction, the Government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Rodgers acted with the “intent to defraud.”  To meet this burden, the Government will likely rely on evidence of Mr. Rodgers’ alleged knowledge that the Youth Technology Institute had no involvement with the ball.  The jury would then infer from such circumstantial evidence that Mr. Rodgers possessed the requisite fraudulent intent because no other reasonable explanations would exist to justify his reasons for requesting the funds.  As is the case in many white collar criminal matters, the presentation of alternative explanations will be critically important to Mr. Rodgers’ defense.

Therefore, defense counsel for Mr. Rodgers should diligently review all of the documentary evidence, recorded phone calls, and emails in this case to uncover and support alternative explanations for Mr. Rodgers’ request.  Simply because others in this case were acting with criminal intent does not mean Mr. Rodgers was acting with criminal intent.  There is a real risk that a jury may find Mr. Rodgers guilty by association.  The presentation of reasonable and alternative explanations will help counteract that threat and give the jury something else to rely on.

Furthermore, presenting such information to the prosecutor at the early stages of plea negotiations may help Mr. Rodgers get a more favorable plea agreement.  And lastly, alternative explanations supported by the evidence that mitigates but falls short of fully exonerating Mr. Rodgers can still be used to advocate for a more lenient sentence before the judge.

This post is authored by Ferrari & Associates, P.C., a law firm specializing in federal criminal defense matters. Feel free to contact us at (202) 280-6370 or info@ferrariassociatespc.com.