MILWAUKEE Four out-of-state Democratic operatives testified that five of their fellow local campaign workers boasted about slashing the tires of 25 vans rented by the Republican Party in the early morning hours before the 2004 presidential election.
The four witnesses were all members of a "get out the vote" effort targeting black voters in the hotly contested state of Wisconsin, which John Kerry won by little more than 10,000 votes in the 2004 presidential election.
The five defendants, Michael Pratt, Sowande Omokunde, Justin Howell, Lewis Caldwell and Lavelle Mohammad all stormed into the Democratic campaign office here and began bragging about the slashings on the morning of Nov. 2, 2004, Alicia Smith testified.
"I heard the group come in and they were saying, 'We got 'em! We got 'em! They won't be moving their vans in the morning. We got 'em. We slashed their tires,'" Smith, a campaign worker from Virginia, said.
Pratt, the son of then acting Milwaukee Mayor Marvin Pratt; Omokunde, the son of Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.); and the three other defendants are all charged with criminal damage to property — a felony that carries a maximum sentence of three and a half years in prison and a $10,000 fine for the incident which left 40 tires on 25 vans flat. Jurors will also have the option of convicting them of a lesser misdemeanor charge.
Republican campaigners had rented more than 100 vehicles for a get-out-the-vote campaign. The vehicles were parked in a lot adjacent to a Bush campaign office, and party workers planned to drive poll watchers to polling places by 7 a.m. on Nov. 2 to deliver any voters who needed a ride.
Prosecutors say the five defendants left the Democratic campaign office at about 3:30 a.m. the morning of the election and slashed the tires of the vans around the perimeter of a dirt parking lot to prevent the GOP efforts.
Lawyers for the five defendants, however, say the national "political operatives" are in fact slashed the tires and then, when authorities began speaking with them, pointed their fingers at the five defendants to save their political careers.
The testimony of Smith and her three out-of-state co-workers, Myesha Ward, Levar Stoney and Lashaunda Williams generally echoed previous statements of Opel Simmons III, an earlier witness and the leader of the get-out-the-vote group who told jurors of the defendants' behavior after the alleged slashing.
But like Simmons, the witnesses all admitted to lying to police in the hours after the slashing and then changing their stories in interviews with FBI agents during the months after the election.
Stoney, who told jurors he hopes to be a U.S. senator one day, said he initially lied to police because he did not want to give up the names of the defendants, whom he grew close to during long days courting voters in Milwaukee.
"I wasn't going to try and get my friends, my colleagues, in trouble. Nor was I going to get the Democratic Party in trouble as well," he said.
But as soon as the FBI agents began calling him in Virginia, he decided to come clean about what happened on the morning of the election, he said.
Stoney was also the only witness to describe a weapon — a brown-handled kitchen knife —in the hands of one of the defendants, although he could not remember who held the blade then threw it away.
Jurors heard from Rick Wiley, the chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party at the time of the election, last Friday. Wiley described the damage to the tires and his efforts to get them repaired in time for workers to drive voters to the polls.
On cross-examination Omokunde's attorney Robin Shellow attempted to get Wiley to admit that he didn't think any Kerry campaign workers could have been involved with the incident. When he wouldn't concede the point, Shellow eventually asked Wiley to read from his own quote in the National Review, the conservative magazine.
"I didn't think that someone who was on the Kerry campaign or the Democratic party of Wisconsin payroll would be stupid enough to do this," Wiley was quoted in the magazine.
Court TV Extra is streaming the trial, which is expected to conclude this week.