Try 1 month for 99¢

HAMMOND | Jojuana Meeks, who embezzled thousands from the Gary Urban Enterprise Association, took the witness stand Wednesday to describe how she may have unwittingly helped three other men pilfer the organization.

Prosecutors say Meeks, as director of the GUEA, bought two Gary buildings in October 2001 that led to large, secret profits for three men who did not own the structures.

The men -- Lake County Councilman Will Smith Jr., tax collector Roosevelt Powell, and attorney Willie Harris -- are on trial this week in U.S. District Court on charges of theft, fraud and filing inaccurate tax returns. Wednesday marked the second day of testimony in the joint trial.

The trio say they were entitled to the approximate $183,000 net profit they earned from the sales of the two buildings: the vacant grocery store at 6300 Miller Ave. and a commercial building at 768-778 Broadway.

Meeks testified that she believed the prices were fair when she negotiated them in 2001 with Powell. She said GUEA attorney Karen Freeman-Wilson, who once shared law offices with Harris, reviewed both deals before they went through.

Meeks said both deals came about because she knew Powell from tax sales, which she had been attending frequently during a land-buying binge that lasted several years.

Powell was giving her advanced notice on properties that were headed for the auction block on a county tax sale, which she believed he had the power to do because he worked for a contractor that essentially ran the county's tax sales.

"It was helpful to have this inside information, wasn't it?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Benson said.

"It certainly took a lot of the stress off of me," Meeks said.

Meeks was among the first of nine people who were indicted for stealing from the GUEA. She pleaded guilty last March to 13 felony counts of theft, fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion, and faces more than 100 months in prison when she's sentenced later this year.

Although she hopes her cooperation with prosecutors in the case will convince a judge to grant her a lenient jail term, she has no plea agreement that forces her to cooperate. Her motivation to testify comes from a greater power, she said.

"I'm not trying to be facetious, but I'm not interested in pleasing anyone in this court but God," Meeks told Harris' defense attorney Thomas Mullins.