The trial of a former City-County Council member charged with attempted extortion and soliciting a bribe got under way Tuesday with jury selection and opening arguments.
Lincoln Plowman, also a former Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department major, is accused of using his official position to collect $6,000 for helping to grease the wheels for a new strip club.
Combined, the charges could result in up to 30 years in prison and a maximum $500,000 fine.
“I do not believe I did anything wrong,” Plowman told IBJ following opening arguments in federal court in Indianapolis. “That’s why I pled not guilty.”
Attorney Richard Pilger of the U.S. Department of Justice’s criminal division, however, painted Plowman as a power-hungry councilor willing to sell his influence for the right price.
A grand jury indicted Plowman in September 2010. From August to December of 2009, the indictment says, Plowman solicited an undercover FBI agent to pay him $5,000 in cash and make a $1,000 campaign contribution in exchange for Plowman’s help with strip club zoning.
Plowman, a Republican who was elected to the council in 2003, was a member of the council’s Metropolitan Development Committee, which recommends appointments to the Board of Zoning Appeals. That board reviews petitions for zoning law variances.
Plowman may have appeared to be a councilor working for the common good, Pilger said, but behind the scenes he was trying to line his pockets with cash.
“Why does he take $5,000 and demand a $1,000 campaign contribution?” he asked the jury. “Because this case is about how the defendant used his power to sell the influence of his office.”
In February 2010, Plowman was put on paid administrative leave from his IMPD job while he was under FBI investigation. He resigned from the police force and the council about a month later as the leave was ending. Plowman faced potential suspension without pay from the department, a step toward termination.
According to court documents, Plowman met with three undercover FBI agents at the downtown Capital Grille on Dec. 22, 2009. A male agent posed as an out-of-state club owner who wanted to open a high-end strip joint in Indianapolis. Two female agents accompanying him acted as friends he had met during his visits to the city.
Plowman first met the undercover agent in August 2009 for lunch at a south-side O’Charley’s restaurant, arriving in his police vehicle and uniform, and boasting about how he controlled city zoning decisions, Pilger told the jury.
The two met in the months ahead at Nicky Blaine’s and Ruth’s Chris Steak House in downtown Indianapolis and at Dancers Showclub on West Washington Street, where Plowman eventually asked for the money, Pilger said.
In the meantime, the FBI agent collected more than five hours of tape recordings that Pilger said he’ll play for the jury.
But Plowman’s lawyer, Jim Voyles, disputed the prosecution’s claims that Plowman first met the agent dressed in his police uniform. He further claimed that the FBI agent insisted on paying Plowman $5,000 and donating $1,000 to his campaign for the work he did.
Voyles said his client spent 50 to 100 hours helping the agent find an appropriate location, even referring him to a real estate broker and lawyer.
Plowman believed the money not to be a bribe but payment for his services, just like an arrangement he had with PT’s Showclub on the east side, which paid him $1,000 a month to serve as its part-time consultant.
Plowman coached the strip club on interior camera locations, provided defensive training programs and advised it on parking and zoning issues, Voyles said.
Voyles acknowledged Plowman never reported the consulting arrangement with IMPD, but whether he knew he was required to is in dispute.
Plowman even insisted to the agent that the $5,000 needed to be reported on a 1099 tax form, Voyles said, which should indicate to jurors that he didn’t view the money as a bribe.
“He never approached a member of the zoning board to do anything illegal for the agent,” Voyles insisted. “He just wanted to be paid $5,000 for the 50 to 100 hours of work he did.”
Judge Larry McKinney is presiding over the trial, which is expected to last about 10 days.