Guns, Bribes, and Benjamins
Highbrow respectability for notorious gangsta rappers comes with a monumental price tag. Recently, badass Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs, who faces 15 years behind bars if convicted for illegal possession of a gun, has been doling out "cash money," trying to buy lots of it, perhaps to keep from going to jail.
Indeed Combs has "juice": He lives in the "bling bling" Hamptons, socializes with Donald Trump and Martha Stewart, gives free turkeys around Thanksgiving, runs Daddy's House, and has vowed to carry on the work of Hosea Williams, the King-era civil rights leader who died of cancer last month. Combs even enlisted Jesse Jackson, so far the only prominent African American leader who has questioned Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau's motive in prosecuting him. But not everyone agrees "It's All About the Benjamins," Combs's hit rap about making money and influencing people.
A $50,000 donation from the indicted hip hop mogul was rejected by 100 Black Men, a prestigious think tank that counts Johnnie Cochran, former mayor David Dinkins, former Manhattan borough president Percy Sutton, publisher Earl Graves, and Congressman Charles Rangel among its members. Combs, who is represented by Cochran, offered the money for a scholarship fund just weeks before he is scheduled to stand trial in connection with the December 27, 1999, nightclub shooting of three people, sources in the group told the Voice.
"The way it was presented didn't make the organization comfortable," says one insider, a prominent young Harlem politician, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It did not seem like it was being offered genuinely." He claims that at an executive meeting of the powerful fraternal organization on November 28, a senior member approached him and said, "You into hip hop, right? Puff Daddy tried to give the organization a large contribution and the organization rejected it." He says the senior member told him that "the gift" was $50,000. When he asked why the money was not accepted, the senior member said "it appeared" that Combs, the head of Bad Boy Entertainment, was trying to buy support from the group. Such support, the senior member inferred, would have been given in the form of high-profile members of the group appearing as character witnesses at Combs's January 2 trial in state supreme court in Manhattan.
"They don't like to reject scholarship money, but they are conservative when it comes to where the money is coming from," the Harlem politician points out. "A lot of these guys don't want to do anything to damage their own careers or the future of the organization."
After Mike Tyson was released from prison in 1995 for raping a black beauty pageant contestant, some members of 100 Black Men came out in support of the former heavyweight champ just days before Tyson made a controversial appearance at a "homecoming" rally in front of the historic Apollo Theatre in Harlem. "They were behind Mike because they had a good relationship with Don King," the politician insider says. "Tyson has a good name in Harlem." Noted trial attorney Paul Williams, president of 100 Black Men, declines to talk about the group's negotiations with Combs. "As far as I am concerned, there was no formal offer so there is no formal rejection," says Williams. "That's all I'm going to say."
It is not the first time that it has been alleged that Combs threw his Benjamins at people he felt could bail him out of serious trouble. Combs and bodyguard Anthony "Wolf" Jones were charged with bribery for allegedly offering Wardell Fenderson, Combs's driver on the night of the shooting, $50,000 and a ring that singer-actress Jennifer Lopez had given Combs for his birthday if he would claim the gun was his.
Fenderson is suing Combs for $3 million, claiming that Jones forced him to run red lights after the shooting. In court papers, Fenderson, 40, says that he picked up Combs, Lopez, and Jones around 2 a.m. outside Club New York in Times Square on December 27. Inside the club, three people had been shot, allegedly by Jamal "Shyne" Barrow, 20, a rapper who had come to the club with Combs and Lopez. Barrow has been charged with attempted murder in connection with the incident. As they fled in Combs's Lincoln Navigator, Fenderson says in court papers, Jones grabbed the steering wheel and screamed at him "not to stop and to continue driving" despite police orders to pull over. The Manhattan district attorney's office has alleged in court papers that while Combs's vehicle was speeding through 11 red lights, someone threw a 9mm handgun out a passenger window. When Fenderson saw a police barricade at 54th Street and Eighth Avenue, he had to stop, court papers say, despite his fear of other people in the SUV. His papers say he could see Jones was carrying a gun.
When police searched the SUV, they found a 9mm automatic on the floor in the front passenger side. Combs and Jones were charged with illegal possession of a gun. Although Lopez was questioned, she was not charged. In his court papers, Fendersonwho was not charged, and who reportedly is cooperating with prosecutorsdoes not mention that he saw Combs with a gun.
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.
"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?"
Harvey Slovis, the lawyer who was representing Combs at his grand jury appearance, "attempted through verbal objection and physical gesture to convey to Mr. Bogdanos that [he] was prejudicing the proceeding against Mr. Combs," Brafman and Cochran claim. "However, rather than rein in his questioning, Mr. Bogdanos chose to continue with his adversarial cross-examination aimed at obtaining [an indictment] against Mr. Combs." That left the grand jury with the impression that Combs "had repeatedly been found guilty of weapons possession and assault, despite the fact that he has no such convictions," the lawyers claim.
In his written response, Matthew Bogdanos fired back, asserting that Cochran's and Brafman's argument that the indictment should be thrown out because of the unconstitutional cross-examination of Combs "distorts what took place" in the grand jury. The prosecutor insisted that it was Combs and not he who brought up Combs's criminal history.
"Prior to that, [Combs] had not been asked a single question about his [past] misconduct (although it would have been appropriate to do so)," Bogdanos offers. "Not until [Combs] attempted to manipulate the grand jurors by raising his prior misconduct and then lying about it was he asked anything about that misconduct."
Bogdanos denies that he asked Combs about every crime he is alleged to have committed. "Not even close," the prosecutor writes. He recalls asking Combs about "his unprovoked beating" of Steven Stout, an assault Combs allegedly had carried out with Paul Offord and another man, his gunpoint intimidation of New York Post photographer Gary Miller, and his assault on one Edwin Altemar-Perez. "He was specifically not asked about many other criminal activities about which the prosecutor had a good-faith basis to inquire," Bogdanos reiterates.
The prosecutor explains that he could have badgered Combs about a November 1997 case in which two stolen semiautomatic guns were found in his rented Rolls-Royce in Moline, Illinois, a March 1998 incident in which two stolen semi-automatic guns that were found in a room he rented at the Westin Hotel in Washington, D.C., and cocaine residue that was discovered in his Lincoln Navigator.
As for the altercation with Harvey Slovis in the grand jury room, Combs's lawyers bend the facts a little, according to Bogdanos. "After Mr. Slovis stormed out, [Combs] insisted on continuing without [his attorney] present," the prosecutor claims, adding that it was he and Combs who "together went outside into the hallway and convinced Mr. Slovis that the cross-examination was fair and that Mr. Slovis should reenter." Bogdanos recalls that when Slovis eventually joined him and Combs in a subsequent conversation outside the hearing of the jury, he assured Combs that he "had no interest in questioning him about prior incidents, but that if [Combs] insisted on bringing them up he should expect to be questioned about them." He also claims that he reminded Combs that he did not have to talk about "any incidents" other than the Club New York shooting.
"Having made that choice, he cannot now hide behind an attempt at revisionist history," Bogdanos argues. He charges that Combs's lawyers never mention in their court papers that he had asked the jury to "disregard any arguments" between himself and Slovis, and that he had laid out guidelines under which the panel could consider testimony about crimes not related to the Club New York incident. Writes Bogdanos: "The grand jurors are presumed to have followed all such instructions."
Admirers and critics alike say that if Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs is reaching out for help, he is appealing to the wrong people.
Some believe that in his initial appearances before the media to profess his innocence, Combs never expressed genuine sorrow for what happened to Natania Ebone Reuben, the Brooklyn mother of two who was shot in the face during the Club New York gunplay. Reuben is the most seriously injured of the three victims. Combs, they add, should have mentioned Reuben by name and publicly offered to do anything he could to ease the suffering of a woman who ran her own beauty salon.
Instead of appearing contrite, they charge, Combs comes off as another arrogant celebrity gangsta rapper, profiling for the paparazzi, and seeking to portray himself as a victim of his own success. Although a script was written for Reuben, she could not have articulated her outrage any better than she did in commenting on the media's behavior a couple of days after the shooting.
"When I left the district attorney's office Monday morning, several photographers were assembled outside, waiting for a glimpse of Sean Puffy Combs, or any of his entourage," Reuben said, sobbing throughout her emotional statement. "As I stood on my crutches, my face bandaged so that my own children are not afraid and tormented to see me, these same photographers pointed their cameras the other way. I am not famous. I do not have a publicity machine. I do not have a billion dollars of insurance on my body, or any of my body parts for that matter. Does that make me any less valuable?"
With these and other unanswered questions about his volatile personality, his alleged guns, his dirty Benjamins, and his alleged bribe, can Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs now purchase respectability, and buy his way out of the Club New York shooting trial?
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