Advocate staff writer
Published: Nov 3, 2009 –

The longtime chief investigator for the local Public Defender’s Office admitted Monday to bribing a senior city prosecutor and other court officials to fix criminal and traffic cases in City Court and state District Court in Baton Rouge.

Edward C. “Pooh’’ James, who retired Friday after spending 35 years with the East Baton Rouge Parish Public Defender’s Office, pleaded guilty in federal court to racketeering and conspiracy charges that allege both bribery and extortion.

The 65-year-old James’ guilty plea is the third in a federal investigation into alleged corruption in the parish’s criminal court system.

Former senior city prosecutor Flitcher R. Bell, who resigned Thursday, and former police Sgt. Darrell Johnson, who retired Oct. 23, admitted Friday in federal court that they took bribes to dismiss criminal charges in City Court.

James, Bell and Johnson are cooperating with federal authorities, U.S. Attorney David Dugas said.

A second former officer, Leonard P. Jackson, resigned from the Police Department Oct. 23 and was charged Friday by prosecutors with bribery and is due in federal court Wednesday.

James faces a maximum possible sentence of 25 years in prison — up to 20 years for racketeering and up to five years for conspiracy — and $500,000 in fines.

U.S. District Judge James Brady ordered a presentence report, which is information gathered for the judge before sentencing.

Brady did not set a sentencing date for James.

Dugas said Monday that charges can be expected against others in the ongoing two-year-old probe dubbed Operation Illegal Motion.

In a bill of information filed Thursday and unsealed Monday, federal prosecutors allege James’ illegal actions stretched from 2006 until last month when Dugas said James was approached by federal agents.

Dugas said James initially was uncooperative, but after James hired an attorney and federal authorities briefed the attorney, James agreed to plead guilty and cooperate.

Prosecutors painted James, who at that time was referred to in court documents only as E.J., as “a leader’’ of the scheme.

James’ attorney, David Bourland, stressed Monday that James received his “instructions’’ from Bell.

“He (James) couldn’t affect anything directly,’’ Bourland said outside the federal courthouse.

“He was a true go-between, no denying that.’’

The bill of information says “James and others solicited, obtained, and extorted cash, gifts, and other things of value from individuals with criminal and traffic matters pending in the 19th JDC and (Baton Rouge City Court) with the promise that the charges would be dismissed, reduced, or otherwise ‘fixed.’ ’’

James and others would use a portion of the cash, gifts and other things of value to bribe Bell and “other court officials’’ in exchange for the dismissal, reduction or other fixing of the criminal and traffic matters, the document states.

In one instance May 6, the bill of information alleges James negotiated and made a cash payment to A.W. — an employee of City Court — in exchange for the employee falsely completing certain court documents.

Dugas said the person identified as A.W. is not City Court Judge Alex “Brick’’ Wall.

The two-count bill of information against James and a supporting factual stipulation state that:

On Dec. 22, James extorted $1,000 in cash from R.S., who had a pending criminal matter in City Court, with the understanding that a portion of the money would be given to Bell as a bribe in exchange for Bell causing the matter to be dismissed.
On March 31, James talked with M.M. about bribing Bell in exchange for withdrawing multiple outstanding bench warrants against M.M.

James obtained cash from M.M. and gave a portion of it to Bell, who caused the warrants to be withdrawn.

On May 12, James solicited and received cash from an undercover FBI agent posing as an individual — A.A. — with a pending criminal matter in City Court. In exchange, James caused the dismissal of the charge.
On May 20, James talked with Bell about dismissing a criminal charge against S.S. in City Court in exchange for cash. James obtained cash from S.S. and gave some of it to Bell in exchange for Bell causing the charge to be dismissed.
On Sept. 21, James obtained cash from A.A. in exchange for “causing the dismissal or otherwise favorable resolution’’ of matters pending in City Court and the 19th Judicial District Court against A.A. and A.S., another undercover FBI agent.

The charges included offenses committed on an interstate highway.