Mar. 3--Now it's up to a jury to decide the fate of Durham billionaire Greg Lindberg and two of his associates.
During closing arguments in Lindberg's federal bribery trial, jurors on Tuesday heard a prosecutor argue that hours of secretly recorded conversations show "the enthusiasm by these men to buy an insurance commissioner."
And they heard from defense lawyers who contended that Lindberg and his co-defendants were innocent victims of a politician who used his power to " try to entrap and ensnare them."
The jurors began their deliberations Tuesday afternoon.
Lindberg and associates John Gray and John Palermo, along with then-GOP Chairman Robin Hayes, were indicted last spring on charges that they attempted to funnel $2 million in bribe money to the reelection campaign of state Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey.
Hayes, a former congressman, pleaded guilty in October to lying to federal investigators and faces up to six months in prison. His sentencing is expected after the trial.
If Lindberg and his associates are convicted, they could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison for one charge, and up to 10 additional years on another.
Causey previously told the jury that he brought concerns about the three men to federal authorities and, in early 2018, began cooperating with their investigation. The commissioner wore a recording device that captured hours of phone calls and conversations between him, Lindberg, Gray and Palermo.
In many of the conversations played for the jury, Lindberg and Gray urged Causey to reassign Jackie Obusek, the deputy insurance commissioner responsible for overseeing one of Lindberg's companies. The two co-defendants contended Obusek was unfairly tarnishing Lindberg's reputation.
For a while, Lindberg and Gray encouraged Causey to replace Obusek with a new regulator -- Palermo, who at the time was working for Lindberg.
First Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Stetzer told the jury on Tuesday that what Lindberg wanted was clear: "his own personal regulator."
Lindberg in recent years became one of North Carolina's largest political donors. He owns Global Bankers Insurance Group, a managing company for several insurance and reinsurance companies.
Lindberg bought life insurers in the U.S. and abroad and loaned at least $2 billion of their assets to entities he controlled, the Wall Street Journal has reported.
Stetzer argued that the defendants used campaign contributions -- as opposed to a more blatant form of bribe -- because they were trying to make the payouts look legitimate.
"This is a plain bribe dressed up as a donation," he told the jury.
Defense lawyers contended that Causey entrapped the defendants by pushing for private meetings and inviting a bribe.
They argued that Causey encouraged the FBI to investigate Lindberg -- and then cooperated in that investigation -- because he was troubled by the financial support that Lindberg had provided to his chief political opponent, former insurance commissioner Wayne Goodwin.
Lindberg donated at least $9,500 to Goodwin during the 2016 race, according to state records.
On Tuesday, the defense team again focused on a comment that Causey made to Lindberg during a March 2018 meeting at the Statesville airport. During that meeting, the two discussed how the insurance department could hire Palermo to take over the job of overseeing Lindberg's company.
"I guess what I'm trying to say is what's in it for me?" Causey asked Lindberg during that meeting.
Asked to explain why he made that comment, Causey testified early in the trial that he did it "at the direction of the FBI agents."
Brandon McCarthy, one of Lindberg's attorneys, told the jury that none of the three defendants has a criminal background -- and that none had criminal intent when they offered campaign contributions.
In all of the initial conversations that Causey recorded with the defendants, there was no mention of money going to his campaign, McCarthy said.
"These guys are frustrated so they interject, "What's in it for me?' McCarthy told the jury Tuesday. "...The government is trying to get Greg to do something illegal."
Said Jack Knight, an attorney representing Gray: "Mike Causey, at the direction of the FBI, drove the defendants into a corner."
But Stetzer contended the recordings showed something entirely different: "What you see in every tape is enthusiasm, enthusiasm by these men to buy an insurance commissioner."
Causey, a Republican who was elected in 2016, said his concerns about Lindberg and his associates began in 2017, when the insurance department was conducting a financial examination of one of Lindberg's companies. Ensuring financial solvency of insurance companies is one of the department's chief responsibilities.
Lindberg donated $10,000 to Causey's reelection campaign in early 2017 -- during the same week insurance department officials were scheduled to meet with leaders of one of Lindberg's companies. Causey said he directed his campaign finance director to return the money.
Causey told the jury that he grew concerned about the company's intentions -- and later began wearing a clandestine recording device to help the FBI investigate possible bribery attempts. Ultimately, the investigators collected more than 50 hours of recorded conversations.
Palermo's attorney, Brian Cromwell, noted that his client wasn't present for many of the key meetings and conversations.
"How can you find someone guilty if he doesn't know what's going on?" Cromwell asked the jury Tuesday.
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