Prosecutors claim Miss. mayor bribed officers

Published 11:15 pm Saturday, November 1, 2008

A Mississippi mayor charged with demolishing an alleged crack house tried to bribe police officers called to testify before a grand jury about the incident, prosecutors allege in court documents filed this week.

Jackson Mayor Frank Melton and former police bodyguard Michael Recio are charged with, among other things, violating the civil rights of two people for damaging a duplex apartment the mayor considered a drug den and haven for prostitution. They have pleaded not guilty, and are expected to go to trial Nov. 12.

Melton, who has already been acquitted on state charges in the same incident, claims he was just keeping a campaign promise to root out crime in Mississippi’s largest city. He does not deny damaging the home in August 2006.

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In an eight-page motion filed this week in U.S. District Court in Jackson, prosecutors asked to admit evidence of other alleged crimes, including accusations that Melton offered promotions to two police officers in an attempt to influence their testimony. Prosecutors want to establish a pattern of alleged abuses of power.

A gag order prohibits attorneys on both sides from discussing the case.

The alleged bribes happened in 2007 on the day the officers were subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury investigating the sledgehammer attack, prosecutors said. The officers were not named.

It’s not clear why the government hasn’t charged Melton with bribery if prosecutors have evidence it occurred. However, it is easier to persuade a judge to allow alleged prior bad acts into an ongoing trail than to prove someone committed a crime, said Mississippi College School of Law Professor Matt Steffey.

“They can bring these issues up even if they have less proof than they need to prosecute Mr. Melton for it,” Steffey said.

The accusations came in a flurry of court motions filed in recent weeks in an attempt to influence the way the case is presented to the jury.

Melton, a well-known former television executive and one-time head of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, wants to introduce evidence that the duplex was a crack house.

Prosecutors, on the other hand, don’t want the jury to hear about illegal activity at the home. Crime has long been a problem in the capital city and testimony that the home was a center for narcotics use and distribution could sway jurors in Melton’s favor.

Melton, Recio and another of the mayor’s bodyguards were acquitted on state charges last year after convincing a jury the mayor had no malicious intent. The other bodyguard, Marcus Wright, however, struck a deal with federal prosecutors in this case and plans to testify.

It’s not clear how much of the evidence will be allowed at trial.

“I think it’s going to be difficult for the prosecutors to say, ‘We can go back and pick the bad things he’s done but he can’t talk about his efforts to fight drugs,”’ Steffey said. “It’s a chess match at this point.”