NORFOLK, Va. (CN) – A city councilman testifying Tuesday in the federal corruption trial of Norfolk treasurer Anthony Burfoot said he was told by a developer in 2010 that Burfoot was soliciting bribes.
Councilman Paul Riddick told the jury that the conversation with developer Dwight Etheridge took place right before the council's vote to approve a controversial midtown office tower project.
Riddick said he told Etheridge he didn't need to pay Burfoot anything to build in the city.
Burfoot is charged with soliciting bribes and kickbacks, in cash and in gifts, for his help in advancing several development projects in the city.
At the time of his conversation with Riddick, Etheridge was the head of Tivest Development and Construction. He is currently serving time for conspiracy and bank fraud and is due to be released in 2017.
On Tuesday, Councilman Riddick said he initially supported the office tower project because he believed it would be a needed economic stimulus for the city's struggling downtown and provide "an incentive for youngsters who lived across the street in the housing projects.”
But he said he started having doubts about the project after Etheridge sought his advice on dealing with Burfoot.
“Historically, African Americans haven’t had experience building businesses in Norfolk,” Riddick said. “In my opinion, it’s unconscionable to ask another African American for money.”
Riddick said he advised Etheridge to stand up to Burfoot.
“I told him he didn’t have to give him one red cent,” Riddick said.
Riddick said he's always been careful to document even the smallest contributions and gifts and said he thought it "inappropriate" to do otherwise.
As an example of behavior by Burfoot that troubled him, Riddick recalled being invited to lunch by the treasurer.
“We had a casual conversation, and I expected him to pay the bill since he invited me out,” Riddick said. “We just got up and left and he didn’t pay the bill,” Riddick said.
For all that, Riddick said he "hated seeing Anthony be in this position, we both have kids, he has two daughters."
“He was my friend then, he’s my friend now, and I have no political ax to grind,” the councilman said.
As he left the stand, he shook Burfoot's hand.
The next person to testify was former Tivest labor manager Gary Ellick, who said he had several conversations with Etheridge about Burfoot and witnessed several of the developer's cash payment to the official.
“When Tivest was dwindling, Etheridge said he didn’t feel the company started in the right way because he had to pay for Burfoot’s shares in the company and he didn’t think that was right,” Ellick said.
Ellick said on 8 to 12 occasions, he accompanied Etheridge to a local credit union to conduct payroll withdrawals for Tivest employees and then saw him meet Burfoot in the parking lot, where he handed the treasurer envelopes containing $50 and $100 bills.
“I’m not exactly sure how much was in the envelopes. The envelopes were bulgy; they were thick," Ellick said.
He went on to describe several other discreet payments he said were made to Burfoot, and said on one occasion, Etheridge asked him to deliver an envelope stuffed with cash.
“Burfoot told Etheridge he needed money for his daughters,” Ellick said. “Etheridge withdrew money ... several $100 bills. Etheridge got called away to a meeting and asked me to take the envelope to Burfoot.”
Ellick said Etheridge openly expressed his displeasure at having to make the payment, particularly after the city stopped work at one of the project sites.
Ellick said Etheridge told him, "I bet if I give him money work will start.”
Ellick went on to say that's exactly what happened.
“I told Etheridge he should report Burfoot to the [Norfolk Redevelopment Housing Authority],” Ellick said. “We shouldn’t have to do business that way.”
The prosecution then turned to Burfoot’s use of Etheridge’s luxury cars.
Ellick testified Burfoot often drove Etheridge’s Porsche around Norfolk, and that on one occasion, damaged the clutch.
“Etheridge said ‘[Burfoot] must be really bold, driving my car around town like that,'” Ellick said.
He also recalled once asking Etheridge if he was interested in selling Mercedes Benz. If so, Ellick said he told his boss, he'd be interested in buying it.
Etheridge declined the offer, allegedly telling Ellick that he's already sold the car to Burfoot.
Ellick said he took Etheridge at his word and was later surprised when they again visited the credit union together, this time to make a payment on the Mercedes Burfoot supposedly owned.
The prosecution has provided the court with a witness list of 64 people. The trial is expected to continue well into December.
If convicted, Burfoot could be sentenced to up to 100 years in prison and ordered to repay $475,000 in ill-gotten payments.