Governor W. W. Barron Bribery Conspiracy Trial

Charleston Gazette
August 31, 1968

Barron Cleared in Conspiracy Case; Four Others Convicted

Appeal to Higher Court is Certain

By John G. Morgan
Staff Writer

Former Gov. W. W. Barron was acquitted Friday in the bribery conspiracy trial here. The other four defendants were found guilty.

Convicted were former State Road Commissioner Burl A. Sawyers, former Deputy Road Commissioner Vincent J. Johnkoski, Elkins lawyer Bonn Brown and Clarksburg automobile dealer Alfred F. Schroath.

A federal court jury returned separate verdicts for each of the five accused men at 6:05 p. m. after deliberating more than 18 hours.

The maximum penalty that could be imposed, pending disposition of motions, is five years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine for each of those convicted.

An appeal to a high federal court, pending disposition of standard motions, is virtually certain for the four found guilty. It would be lodged with the U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.

Throughout the complicated 15-day trial here, defense lawyers carefully laid the groundwork to prepare for the possibility of appeal. To the last, however, they were privately hopeful of an acquittal or a hung jury for all their clients.

In a tense courtroom scene Friday, Jury Foreman Ralph Buckalew submitted a piece of paper on which the verdicts were written to Special Judge J. Robert Martin Jr. The judge inspected the paper and handed it to Court Clerk Virgil Frizzell, who read the verdicts in a booming voice.

Barron's name was the first one read. After it came the official verdict: "not guilty."

The 56-year-old former governor seemed characteristically impassive when he heard the two words. But moments later he smiled and his eyes reddened with joy as he and his wife, Opal, and their lawyer, Robert G. Perry happily engaged in a three-way embrace.

Barron was the only happy defendant in the courtroom. The others walked gloomily about after hearing the verdicts without displaying emotion.

Two of Sawyers' daughters began crying, and others among the 35 spectators who heard the verdict seemed shocked.

Those present included Mrs. Sawyers, another daughter and son in the Sawyers family; Mrs. Johnkoski and Fred Barron of Florida, a brother of the former governor.

The brother, who told jokes to ease the minds of those taking part in the long vigil for the verdict, was speechless with happiness when the jury's decision was announced.

Mrs. Opal Barron clutched both hands to her face during the reading of the verdict but maintained her composure. The former governor brushed a tear from her eye when she joined him.

"I am very, very happy," Mrs. Barron told reporters as she was leaving the Federal Building. "I can now spend some time with our children and grandchildren and plan for the future."

Barron said he planned to remain in Charleston and practice law. He added that he hopes to take more part in civic activities, to see more of the "good citizens of West Virginia" and to get more exercise, including swimming and golf.

He extended thanks to the "thousands of people who have been courteous, gracious and kind to Opal and me" throughout the ordeal of the trial.

Barron declined comment on the verdict as it affected the four others, saying this was a matter of law on which he shouldn't speak.

Perry said he was confident throughout that Barron would be acquitted and was "not at all surprised" with the verdict for his client.

"I am just desolate for the other defendants and totally unable to understand it," Perry said.

Preiser, lawyer for Sawyers and Johnkoski, commented:

"There was not enough evidence on which to convict, unless the jury was prebrainwashed as to rumors and had preconvictions in their minds."

The verdict against Sawyers and Johnkoski apparently meant that the jury believed Isadore Lashinsky, star witness for the U. S. government.

Lashinsky, a Charleston businessman under indictment for income tax evasion, testified that he left $50,000 in sealed envelopes during visits in Johnkoski's office during 1961-63, the period in which the alleged conspiracy flourished.

The witness, who testified under immunity from prosecution, said the money was left as commission payments on gross business he did with the state.

His testimony went to the heart of the government's case, which charged the five defendants with conspiracy to commit bribery involving state contracts.

More specifically a nine-page indictment returned last Feb. 14 charged the defendants with conspiring to violate an antiracketeering law passed in 1961.

Under this law, it is a federal crime to use interstate facilities, including the U. S. mail and telephones, to carry on activities which break certain state laws. In this instance, the indictment alleged that the defendants were conspiring to break the state law against bribery. There was no specific charge of bribery itself.

Originally, there was another defendant, former State Finance Commissioner Truman E. Gore, but a mistrial was declared for him on eighth day of the trial just ended. He remains under indictment but unaffected by Friday's verdicts.

During the full length of the trial, the government put on 31 witnesses and introduced 186 exhibits in an effort to prove its case. A government lawyer said Friday he was satisfied with the verdicts.

No witness was put on by the defense during the entire trial. According to the law, the defense isn't required to produce evidence.

A central part of the government's case was evidence that money flowed to four corporations in Ohio and Florida as commission payments for West Virginia state contracts.

The government charged that those payments were, in effect, kickbacks to the defendants by some firms who held the contracts.

The indictment said that Schroath and Brown set up the Ohio and Florida corporations and arranged for them to receive money from the so-called "paying firms" that got the contracts from the West Virginia state government.

Evidence showed that 17 firms sent a total of $166,570 to the corporations, which were later dissolved and merged with another corporation.

According to the indictment, 100 shares of stock was issued to each of the original six defendants from the single merged corporation, the final receptacle of the flowing funds.

The issuance of this stock on an equal basis was linked by the government to the earlier signing of two trust agreements by all six.

The agreements said that each of the six would invest equally in existing corporations and others to be created later. Mentioned in the agreements were two Florida corporations never identified as receivers of the money going south.

Receiving corporations were named American Brokerage Co., Atlantic Management Corp. and Interstate Services, Inc., all Florida organizations, and Invest Right Corp. of Tuppera Plains, Ohio.

The three Florida corporations were dissolved and their assets transferred to First Southeastern Capital Corp., the southern delta of the stream of money that rose and fell during the 1961-63 conspiracy period.

The trial took place on the fifth floor of the federal building. At its end, defendants came down the elevator, faced reporters and photographers, hastened to parking lots and drove away.

Emergence on the first floor where the news media clustered was a grim occasion for the four convicted defendants. But all ran the gauntlet, except Sawyers who somehow evaded the inquiring little army with its artillery of clicking cameras.

No one photographed or talked to members of jury, which remained under custody throughout the trial while living in special quarters in the Daniel Boone Hotel.

Seven women and five men served on the jury. Foreman Buckalew is a Republican city councilman at Dunbar and a relief operator foreman.

The other four men on the jury were a computer programer specialist, a laborer, a building and property custodian, and an office clerk.

Among the women were five housewives, a maid and a part-time telephone operator.

At 3:10 p. m., when it seemed the jury might never reach unanimous agreement, the judge ordered the 12 members to the courtroom and read them the so-called "Allen charge."

In these instructions, Martin pointed out that the case was important and that the government and the defense had carried heavy burdens of expense in preparing for and holding the trial.

He advised that if the majority of the jurors saw reason to convict the defendants, then those in the minority should each consider whether he holds a reasonable doubt about the guilt of the accused.

On the other hand, he said, if a majority stood for acquittal, then the other minority should ask themselves about the correctness of their judgment.

The Allen charge also contained an instruction - and informed sources said this was significant in a conspiracy case - that the jurors could deliberate and return any time with a verdict affecting any one of the defendants.

There were some objections to the charge by defense lawyers, although it's understood that these instructions have been tested and upheld in court decisions.

At 4 p. m., the jury returned with this question directed to the judge:

"If two or more defendants are found guilty and the rest are found not guilty, are all defendants considered guilty?"

The judge and some lawyers present construed the question to mean that the jury had some misunderstanding of the conspiracy law.

He repeated an extensive instruction that he had given earlier about this law, stressing that first the jury must decide whether a conspiracy existed, then determine if one or more of the defendants were participants in it, and finally, within limitations placed upon the indictment, establish whether certain overt acts were committed in furtherance of the conspiracy.

The judge held up two fingers and advised the jury it takes two to make a conspiracy. He said it was entirely possible for one or more of the defendants to be found not guilty and two or more to be found guilty.

"It will be necessary for at least two to be found guilty, before one can be found guilty," he added.

The judge said the jurors were deadlocked at that time and that he knew how they stood in relation to the verdicts. But he didn't reveal the count.

Two hours later the verdicts were returned.

Martin said the four convicted defendants would continue to remain free under bond. He advised defense lawyers they could have 10 days in which to file motions in writing with the federal court clerk here.

Oral motions for a directed verdict of acquittal, an arrest of verdict and a judgment notwithstanding the verdict were filed by the lawyers just for the record.

Martin, seemingly happy that the trial was finished and more than ready to return home to Greenville, S. C., dismissed and thanked the jury for its long service in confinement.

There was no doubt that during the trial he made a strong impression [on] all the lawyers, the jury, the press and the spectators with his massive presence and bald head, his quick and forthright decisions, his distinct South Carolina drawl and his great senses of humor and fair play.

This unusual trial featured a preliminary appearance by the nationally-known trial lawyer, Edward Bennett Williams; and the almost daily attendance of Peter Taft, grandson of President William Howard Taft and a member of Williams firm.

Never was there a trial like this in West Virginia, with a former governor standing among the accused, along with Brown, who ran for governor in 1964, and with homespun U.S. Atty Milton J. Ferguson, who ran for governor in 1956, on the side of the prosecutor.

Barron, son of a minister, father of three daughters, and the state's 26th governor through 1961- 65, with a solid record of achievement that became soiled with bursting rumors of wrongdoing, stands free today of the leaden weight of the indictment.

Two members of his administration, Sawyers and Johnkoski, stand among the convicted. The fate of another, Gore, remains undetermined.

Government and Politics