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TSU President Priscilla Slade

Oct. 17, 2007, 12:41AM
Two ex-aides may turn on Slade
One of them could testify to secure his release
By MIKE TOLSON
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

The man who signed the checks that funded former TSU President Priscilla Slade’s extravagant lifestyle might be willing to testify against her at her next trial, his attorney said Tuesday.

But Quintin Wiggins, the former chief financial officer of Texas Southern University, would expect something in return for his testimony: “freedom,” attorney Stanley Schneider said.

Jurors never heard from Wiggins during Slade’s trial that ended Friday with an evenly divided jury and a mistrial on charges that she used state funds for personal gain. Afterward, jurors voiced frustration that prosecutors didn’t present enough testimony to detail how TSU’s spending operation functioned under Slade’s presidency.

Wiggins, sentenced in May to 10 years in prison for his part in the scandal, might be able to connect the dots, prosecutor Donna Goode said.

“At the time we went to trial, we didn’t feel it was necessary,” Goode said. “We’re willing to learn from experience. If it would have made the difference for the other six, who’s to say?”

Alternatively, she said, prosecutors could turn to Bruce Wilson, the school’s former head of purchasing, who is awaiting trial on a lesser felony charge of misusing funds. Goode said that either could be useful, but Wiggins was the one who worked closely with Slade during her seven-year tenure.

“If he is compelled or agrees to testify — her chief financial officer that she elevated time and time again, with increasing financial gain each time — she becomes associated with somebody who has a record and has been convicted of this crime,” Goode said. “I don’t think that he would be somebody that the defense would want to show up.”

Schneider agreed.

“If I wanted Slade, I would have come to Wiggins,” said Schneider, who is handling Wiggins’ appeal but did not represent Wiggins at trial.

He said there were plea negotiations before Wiggins’ trial, but they broke down because he did not want to plead to a felony, even though prosecutors offered probation.

Slade’s lawyer dismayed

Because his trial is over, Wiggins could be compelled to testify under threat of contempt, Goode said. But a cooperative witness might be more helpful, and the District Attorney’s Office could work toward his early release, Schneider said.Edward Mallett, Wilson’s attorney, said he has not been approached by Goode with a plea offer. Even if Wilson were unwilling, his testimony could be forced if the district attorney granted him immunity.

Mike DeGeurin, Slade’s attorney, had no comment on the potential use of her co-defendants against her, though he did express dismay that the District Attorney’s Office was intent on a second trial.

“The prosecution said they had learned some things in the first trial that will make it easier the second time around,” he said. “This is not seeking justice. This (a trial) is not a training ground, to see how you can fine-tune your case for the next time.”

Both sides have interviewed jurors, who deliberated for a week before being dismissed by state District Judge Brock Thomas. The jury foreman, tax attorney Charles Schweppe, told reporters afterward that some jurors felt prosecutors did not completely connect the dots.

“They just didn’t get to the heart of the case,” Schweppe said of the prosecutors, who accused the popular former TSU leader of using school money for her personal benefit.

“We just hadn’t heard all the evidence that we wanted to hear. It was enough to convince some people, it wasn’t enough to convince others. We didn’t hear everything we wanted to hear that all of us would be satisfied that she was guilty.”

Risky witnesses

Whether Wiggins or Wilson could help cut through some of the accounting steps is a matter Goode and her associates are carefully weighing. She said co-defendant testimony can offer good insight, though at some risk.”Some people have strong feelings about people who are testifying in exchange for a plea,” she said.

Were either to testify in the retrial, DeGeurin would have ample ammunition to go after them, said Geoffrey Corn, criminal law professor at South Texas College of Law.

“Their credibility is already in question because of the benefit they are getting, and you add to that the fact that they did not appear at the first trial,” Corn said. “(DeGeurin) is in a pretty good position to impeach that testimony and include it in his overall theme of an overzealous prosecution and a victimized defendant.”

Corn also said Wiggins’ testimony would have to be consistent with his not-guilty plea and his previous statements to be usable. He could not turn around and admit wrongdoing in exchange for help getting out of prison, Corn said.

But Corn stopped short of advising Goode not to use them. Just because a co-defendant might be viewed suspiciously does not mean that a jury will not believe him, he said.

“Maybe using one of these individuals to testify in order to simplify these concepts and documents could be valuable,” he said. “And if they could get something from them that Slade said that showed consciousness of guilt, that would be invaluable.”

mike.tolson@chron.com

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