Guns, Bribes, and Benjamins

Can Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs Purchase Respectability and Buy His Way Out of the Club New York Shooting Trial?

The bribery allegation remains a crucial element in D.A. Morgenthau's attempt to convict Combs. In court papers, prosecutors claim that after arriving at the precinct and conferring with Fenderson, Combs, while being processed, asked cops whether it was necessary to arrest all four of the occupants of the SUV if the person who actually possessed the weapon were to admit that it was his responsibility. In court papers, Combs claims that cops told him only that person would be arrested. After talking it over with Fenderson, the driver allegedly agreed to accept responsibility for the weapon.

"Then, while still at the precinct, before being removed to Central Booking, Fenderson told police that the weapon recovered from the Lincoln Navigator was 'his,' " Combs's lawyers, Johnnie Cochran and Benjamin Brafman, allege in court papers. "Despite Fenderson's clear admission, Fenderson, Combs, and Jones were all arrested and all formally charged with possessing that same weapon." After they were released on bail, prosecutors allege that Combs and Fenderson continued to "negotiate" the bribe offer in conversations and that a taped message left by Combs on Fenderson's answering machine is further proof that Combs offered Fenderson a bribe.

But Cochran and Brafman contend in their court papers that "at the time of all of these alleged conversations" Fenderson had not yet turned on Combs and was considered a suspect by prosecutors. Fenderson later testified before the grand jury, denying that the gun police recovered from the SUV was his.

illustration: Shawn Barber

"As the prosecution concedes, no bribe in any form was ever paid and no further conversations on that subject were held between Combs and Fenderson after the date of the taped telephone message," the lawyers argue. "It is important to note that throughout the several days during which the alleged bribe-related conversations were taking place, Fenderson was a codefendant of Combs and there is no evidence that any of the defendants knew that Fenderson was to be a potential witness in any proceeding. Indeed, viewing the evidence even in a light most favorable to the [prosecution], the alleged plan was for Fenderson to accept responsibility for the weapon by pleading guilty to the charge of criminal possession of the weapon found in the Navigator. That event would result in a dismissal of the charges against Combs and Jones, thereby obviating the need for any testimony by Fenderson."

One inference that might be drawn from reading the prosecution's papers filed in the Club New York shooting case is that Combs also tried to sway the grand jury by lying to the panel. But his lawyers counterclaim that it was assistant district attorney Matthew Bogdanos who tried to unduly influence the jury by entangling Combs in a legal quagmire.

During Combs's closing remarks before the jury, in which he was firmly denying that he knew there was a gun in the Lincoln Navigator, Bogdanos began to ask Combs about "three alleged prior bad acts." It was then that Combs "acknowledged a previous mistake"—the April 1999 beatdown of music executive Steve Stout after a dispute arose over Stout's refusal to edit out Combs's appearance on a cross in a video.

According to his lawyers, "Mr. Combs's intention was to impress upon the grand jurors that the publicity that resulted from those allegations, the upheaval in his life, and the consequences to Mr. Stout, had taught him a valuable lesson, and that because of that lesson he would never have knowingly put himself in the position of having another criminal allegation levied against him. The prosecutor then improperly seized on these comments by Mr. Combs, surmising that the door had been 'opened' to Mr. Combs's questioning on each and every criminal allegation ever made against Mr. Combs."

Bogdanos, the lawyers claim, "went to great lengths in attempting to impeach" Combs about his fight with Stout by "displaying the complaint before the grand jurors as he questioned" the rapper. "The prosecution," they charge, "then sought to imply that Mr. Combs should know what was contained in formal court documents written by the district attorney's office, and that a statement by Combs, contrary to what was contained in that complaint, was a deliberate lie."

The lawyers charge that throughout the questioning, Bogdanos "demonstrated his contempt" for Combs by asking inflammatory questions such as: "[M]r. Combs, in light of what you've just said, I have a few additional questions. The altercation that you are referring to is the beating you inflicted on Steven Stout on April 15?" Bogdanos, the lawyers added, "apparently felt the door was also 'opened' to a vigorous cross-examination of Mr. Combs regarding any allegation, true or not, that Mr. Combs ever handled a weapon."

One of those allegations involved a dispute that Combs reportedly had with a photographer. According to the rapper's lawyers, "The prosecutor asked if [Combs] had anything in his possession that the photographer could have mistaken for a weapon." As further evidence that Bogdanos was hell-bent on getting Combs, the lawyers cite the following excerpt from "a totally unprovoked exchange" with the rapper: "The last thing I was asking you about was Sunday morning, October 31, 1999, in front of your club. Are you telling this grand jury that you did not punch and kick an individual outside of your club, a 26-year-old male Hispanic named Edwin Torres, did that or did that not happen?"

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