Trial opens for city businessman charged with theft

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   Trial opened Monday for an Elizabethton businessman accused of accepting a check for $20,000 from another Elizabethton businessman charged with third-offense DUI in hopes of influencing the former district attorney general to reduce his charge.
   According to testimony, the money was intended as a contribution from Sossner Steel owner Neil Friedman to the Crockett for Congress campaign. The check allegedly was given to Carl Ray Nidiffer in May 1996 to pass on to former District Attorney General David Crockett.
   State prosecutors and defense attorneys questioned every person in the courtroom called for jury duty and eventually dismissed 14 of those in preemptory challenges before selecting 12 jurors and one alternate.
   Friedman's attorney, Thomas Cowan, and his partner, Collins Landstreet, both were asked to leave the courtroom as they could be potential witnesses in the case, which is expected to continue most of the week.
   Knoxville Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner was brought in to hear the case prosecuted by Deputy Attorney General Dennis J. Garvey and Senior Counsel Albert L. Partee III of the state Attorney General's Office in Nashville.
   District Attorney General Joe Crumley's office recused itself from the case, Garvey said, because Crumley beat Crockett in the last election and "it might look like he was going after him."
   Judge Baumgartner told prosecutors and defense attorneys Stacy Street and William Byrd that Friedman's recent conviction of aggravated assault in Sullivan County and his relationship with other women is not an issue in the case and would not be admissible as evidence. However, his "use of substance, cocaine and alcohol, are fair game," as well as "his attempt to influence the judicial process," and the fact that the crime was not reported for a period of time after it allegedly was committed also would be relevant.
   Attorneys will not be the only ones allowed to ask questions of witnesses during the trial. Judge Baumgartner told jurors that under the Jury Reform Act, they may write down any questions they have and those will be collected by the court officer and asked either by the judge or counsel once pertinency is established.
   In opening arguments, Prosecutor Garvey told jurors the case started in March 1995 when Friedman was involved in a car accident during which he allegedly was driving under the influence of alcohol. Friedman spent a couple of months in the hospital and underwent lengthy therapy.
   While he was in the hospital, Garvey said, Karen Smith, vice president of the company, visited Friedman in the hospital and tried to help him out while he was hurt.
   "Smith has two children by Mr. Nidiffer," Garvey said. "He pays child support of $600 a month and helped her buy her home."
   According to prosecutor Garvey, after Friedman received his third DUI he was frantic, knowing that he was going to spend 120 days in jail, and pleaded with Smith to help him. He knew of Smith's relationship with Nidiffer and also knew that Nidiffer and Crockett were good friends.
   Garvey said that when Nidiffer was approached by Smith, he suggested that it might help if Friedman made a contribution to Crockett's congressional campaign.
   "Friedman writes the check to 'Cash' and gives it to Lori Friedman," his wife at the time. "Lori gives a check to Mr. Nidiffer for $20,000 and says, 'You know what this is for.' Mr. Nidiffer gives the check to his wife ... and she deposits it to her personal account," Garvey said.
   The check, which was written May 18, 1996, was deposited into an account at Raymond James Associates in Tampa, Fla., and cleared the bank on May 20.
   "Mr. Nidiffer came up with an idea to make some money off of this deal and had the check made out to cash, thinking it wouldn't be traced -- but it was traced," Garvey said.
   Defense attorney Street, in his opening statement, said that if the case were as presented by the prosecution, "we could all pack up and go to the house."
   Street told jurors that Nidiffer has a building and lot where he keeps his "personal playthings."
   On the day Nidiffer allegedly accepted the check, Street said, he was at the lot loading his boat in preparation for a family outing at Watauga Lake. When Lori Friedman gave him the check, he stuck it in his pocket and didn't think about it again until later, when he gave it to his wife, Kim.
   "She takes it and deposits it into a three-party account. Mr. Nidiffer never signed the check, never saw it again. The check dated May 18, 1996, was made payable to cash for $20,000, signed by Neil Friedman, and voluntarily handed to Mr. Nidiffer by Lori Friedman, apparently at the request of her husband. How can you steal something that was handed to you freely?" Street asked.
   "There is one person and only one person that will say there was a theft. Pay close attention to what he says, listen to what he has done, both before and after, and never forget what the check was for. Mr. Friedman wanted his DUI fixed," Street said.
   State prosecutors called Smith as its first witness. Smith told the court she had worked at Sossner Steel Stamps approximately 11 years, starting out in the order entry department, working her way up to office manager, and now vice president, a position she has held since around 1997-98.
   She testified that she had known Nidiffer 16 years and that they had met through a mutual friend.
   "Have you been more than friends with Mr. Nidiffer?" Garvey asked.
   Smith appeared surprised at the question.
   "Do you receive child support from Mr. Nidiffer?" Garvey persisted.
   "He helps me occasionally," she said.
   "Did you purchase a house three to four years ago?"
   "Yes," she replied.
   "Did Mr. Nidiffer make a downpayment on the house?" Garvey asked.
   "He paid money to the bank," she said.
   The prosecutor also established that Friedman was aware of Smith's relationship with Nidiffer, then asked: "Did Mr. Friedman ask you to do anything for him?"
   "He asked me to help get him out of trouble," Smith replied. She said she told Friedman he would have to ask him himself but eventually talked to Nidiffer and told him what Friedman wanted.
   Smith said she only mentioned it to Nidiffer once and that she was unsure who brought up the idea that Friedman should make a campaign contribution to Crockett. She said she was unaware of the check given to Nidiffer until TBI Special Agent Rick Mowell asked her about it. Under cross-examination by defense attorney Street, Smith said Mowell actually accused her of delivering it.
   "Were you a conduit between Mr. Friedman and Mr. Nidiffer?" Street asked.
   "No, I wasn't," Smith said.
   "Were you a conduit between Mr. Nidiffer and Mr. Crockett?"
   "No, I wasn't," she said.
   Friedman's ex-wife, Lori, was called as the state's second witness of the day. She testified that Friedman had been drinking when he wrecked, and at the time he wrote the check "he was in a bad state of mind. He did not want to go to jail."
   Ms. Friedman said she took the check to Nidiffer with the understanding that it would go to Crockett's congressional campaign to help her husband "get a reduced sentence or get him out of trouble."
   She said Friedman wrote the check and she delivered it to him on his boat in the parking lot of PSG. Under cross-examination, Street said, "You testified that if you had known the check was going to Mr. Nidiffer for his personal use, you wouldn't have given it to him?"
   "Yes," she replied.
   "Yet you would give him this money to bribe his way out of a DUI?" Street asked, his question quickly objected to by the state.
   The judge sustained the objection.
   "I thought it was to help him get a reduced sentence," she said.
   Street was not allowed to ask Ms. Friedman whether her ex-husband was using cocaine at the time the check was written, however, he did establish that she was listed as a victim in the indictment because she, as well as her ex-husband, were owners of the $20,000 when the check was written and that she was not compensated for her loss in their marital dissolution agreement.
   After jurors and witnesses were dismissed for the day, Judge Baumgartner said: "What I want to know is, what kind of bank takes a check written for $20,000, with no endorsement, made out to cash?"
   "Raymond James Associates," state prosecutors replied.