ATLANTA—A janitor’s son, Bill Campbell worked hard to build a legacy.
He was the first black child to integrate public schools in Raleigh, N.C. He went to Vanderbilt, then Duke, and eventually became mayor of Atlanta, steering the young Southern city through its 1996 Olympic heyday.
But today, the 52-year old former mayor will defend himself against federal prosecutors who accuse him of running City Hall as a criminal enterprise during his time in office.
He is charged with accepting more than $160,000 in payoffs and $137,000 in illegal campaign contributions. The 48-page indictment accuses him of seven counts of racketeering, fraud and bribery, including allowing a city contractor to pay for a trip to Paris and accepting $50,000 from a strip club operator who wanted a liquor license.
The trial follows a seven-year federal probe into alleged corruption at Atlanta’s City Hall. Twelve city officials and city contractors have pleaded guilty or been convicted on corruption-related charges.
Yet race—rather than corruption—has preoccupied the city before the trial.
Since the beginning of the investigation, Campbell, who maintains his innocence, has vigorously attacked federal prosecutors, charging that their investigation is racially motivated. “The FBI has never been a friend of the African American community,” he said six years ago while in office, “and they’re not a friend now.”
Campbell’s supporters say that he has been unfairly singled out as a black man. His critics respond that he is the only mayor to be charged with corruption in a city that has elected African American leaders since 1973.
During jury selection last week, U.S. District Judge Richard Story, who is white, told legal teams that their wrangling over the racial composition of the jury “broke my heart.” Defense lawyers sought to strike 10 whites from the jury pool, and prosecutors attempted to remove five blacks and one white.
“I’m not asking for political correctness or anything else, but I want a trial based on law and evidence and that is fair and doesn’t judge a man by the color of his skin,” Story said. “I don’t think this is about race, but I worry about the perception.”
The case will be heard by a jury of seven blacks and five whites.
Campbell was mayor from 1994 to 2002, a prosperous era during which the city enjoyed its first population growth in three decades. Campbell hosted the Olympics and two Super Bowls, rehabilitated public housing, reduced crime and expanded the city’s airport.
Yet he also left the city with an $80-million budget deficit and a crumbling sewer system, which cost more than $3 billion to repair.