Judge tosses bribery allegations

A federal judge threw out criminal charges Friday against two businessmen who had been accused of trying to arrange a bribe of DeKalb County Commissioner Stan Watson.

U.S. District Judge David Norton said there wasn’t enough evidence to support allegations that an illegal deal was struck or that any public official in DeKalb received anything improperly, according to The State newspaper.

Watson said the judge’s ruling clears his name, and he said he didn’t have anything to do with the ongoing corruption trial in South Carolina. Several dozen criminal counts remain against the defendants.

“This has vindicated me,” Watson, who represents the eastern half of DeKalb County, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Now it’s proven that I’m not guilty, and I’m going to continue to do what the people elected me to do.”

No evidence was presented during the trial that a bribe was ever paid or that Watson was involved in the discussions between former construction company CEO Richard Zahn and the defendants, Jonathan Pinson and Eric Robinson. An FBI agent said in court that Georgia-based agents are conducting an “ongoing corruption case revolving around DeKalb County.” He did not say whether Watson was a target.

Watson became a potential witness because his name emerged in phone calls secretly recorded by the FBI where the defendants discussed bribing him. Zahn, a witness for the prosecution, also said Watson attended a meeting in Columbia with Pinson.

Zahn testified that the defendants confronted him with an offer after they ate lunch in Atlanta in fall 2011.

Zahn said the defendants told him that Watson could help him get work on the county’s $1.7 billion water and sewer upgrade project if he paid Watson $50,000 or $60,000.

Zahn, who has pleaded guilty in the case, also said the defendants wanted him to buy Atlanta Falcons box seats for suspended DeKalb County Purchasing Director Kelvin Walton.

“Commissioner Watson is going to need some sort of incentive,” Zahn said Pinson told him that day.

Zahn said he felt uncomfortable with their proposal, and he doubted the project would come together for him and his company. He said they didn’t speak about the payment to Watson again, and no money changed hands.

Prosecutors also played a wiretapped conversation between the defendants in which they discussed pressuring Zahn to pay the bribe to Watson, and then they would take a portion of the payment for themselves. Watson wasn’t on any of the wiretapped calls.

“We got to tell him, ‘Stan wants something now,’ you know what I mean?” Robinson said during an Oct. 29, 2011, phone call.

Watson said the implication that he had something to do with the scheme damaged his reputation, and he’ll have to work to rebuild his image.

“The discovery of the truth showed that I had nothing to do with anything — no warrant, no wiretaps, no transactions, no nothing,” Watson said.

Watson’s cellphone records, obtained by the AJC through an open records request, showed 18 calls between his phone and Robinson’s office since November 2011. Watson didn’t explain the calls, but he has previously acknowledged knowing Robinson from his management of Arizona’s Steakhouse at Stonecrest Mall in the commissioner’s district.

Watson used a black marker to try to obscure 16 of the calls on his phone bill, but the phone numbers could still be read through the ink. Watson said earlier this week he marked out the calls because they were personal.

A jury will begin deliberating Monday the remaining charges against Pinson and Robinson, including allegations that the defendants attempted to enrich themselves through their involvement with a public housing project in Columbia, S.C.

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