“I couldn’t have been more wrong,” says Neal Gumpel, the screenwriter. “My wife said we must escape the madness of Hollywood. I believed we’d find safe haven in New Bern, North Carolina, on the saner east coast.
“As it turned out, a gang of white-collar hooligans ran New Bern. Corruption was wild. The city council once asked the governor to let a private company sell part of the city and keep the money. He did and the sale almost closed.
“New Bern was in deep trouble,” says Gumpel. “Voters elected and re-elected the last Mayor and Board of Aldermen four times. Anyone who spoke out against that regime faced personal ruin.”
“Lee Bettis, Jr., had enough of the corruption. He took on the New Bern city council and voters noticed. He ran for mayor, in 2009, and won, handily. The old regime was finally gone,” says Gumpel.
Bettis is a formidable foe, with an unerring sense of right and wrong. A former Marine, he was a Congressional Aide to Dr. Les Aspin. Only weeks after graduating law school, he defended RICO cases, with Gerry Shargel, the top criminal attorney in the USA.
“A smaller town seldom has a resident the calibre of Bettis,” says Gumpel. “The qualified might retire to New Bern, it’s a beautiful city. Their involvement too often stops at paying property taxes on time.
“Bettis struggles for a better New Bern. He’s integrating Blacks, effectively, into the larger community. There are term limits for the Board of Aldermen, which now includes new residents. One new Alderman is from California, another from New York. On city council, there are women and men, White and Black, who lived here a long time. Democracy renewed in New Bern.
“Bettis,” Gumpel says, “suffers for success. I couldn’t invent the hardships he faces. His opponents tried to force Emmanuel and Dunn, the law firm where he worked, to fire him. An elderly woman claimed he assaulted her; the police arrested him and a judge dismissed the charge. There were claims he was a blackout drunk and pedophile. He’s fodder for media frenzy.”
Bettis is proudly liberal and a lifelong Democrat. “When he wanted to run for mayor,” says Gumpel, “he went up against an entrenched and demonic Democratic Machine. He had to change parties.”
The response to him becoming a Republican was unusual. His boss said if he wanted to stay with Emmanuel and Dunn, a psychiatric evaluation was necessary. “This is absolutely true,” says Bettis. The psychiatrist thought him crazy to put up with the absurd insolence he suffered as mayor.
Bettis joined the Marines, right out of high school. “It was a challenge,” he says, “and a duty.” He’s Mayor of New Bern, North Carolina, for much the same reason: a sense of calling to the job.
A clique exploited New Bern for personal benefit. No one knew how or dared to question what was going on for fear of retaliation. Lee Bettis, Jr., knew how, dared and did, fearlessly.
Grub Street (GS) How did you find your way to New Bern, North Carolina?
Lee Bettis, Jr (LB) I was living in New York City, practicing law, after many years as a Congressional Aide, in Washington, DC. One day, the time seemed right for a move to a smaller town. The primary motivation, to move to New Bern, was bombing of the World Trade Centre.
After 9/11, Jodi, my wife, fell ill. She lived across the street from the World Trade Centre.
She helped with the immediate rescue effort and volunteered to work the pit. The airborne pollution that arose and engulfed the area eventually caused her to develop a severe illness.
In late October 2001, Jodi developed the World Trade Centre cough. She wasn’t alone; hundreds of the rescue and recovery workers had the cough. By February 2002, bleeding lesions and hives formed all over her body.
Almost everyone that worked rescue and recovery, at the World Trade Centre, came down with an illness that stumped the medical doctors. It was horrible. Jodi and I made too many trips to Emergency Rooms at New York City hospitals.
GS The side effects of that event stretched medical knowledge.
LB Yes and no one could help. Nobody knew. Too often, the diagnosis was nervous hysteria. Take this deadening, degrading medication and go away.
We decided to move to help her health. New Bern was ideal. It is on the Atlantic coast about 20 miles from the beach and right on two huge and wonderful rivers, the Neuse and the Trent. In 1893, Celeb Bradham created “Brad’s Drink,” at a soda fountain in a pharmacy, here, in New Bern. Today, his drink is Pepsi.
When, Jodi and I moved to New Bern, in 2003, we thought we might start a stress-free life. Her health worsened. We divorced.
GS The unexpected results of that disaster won’t end for a generation or two.
LB Yes, Jodi decided it was unfair to me to continue to carry the load of her illness. I had to pick up the pieces. It was difficult.
Guirnder Sandhu, a medical doctor, in New Bern, eventually diagnosed Jodi as having Scleroderma. This is an autoimmune disease and genetic inclination may play a role. Scleroderma turns organs into a hard silicone. Scleroderma results from extended exposure to silicates, which filled the air around the World Trade Centre for a long-time and may still, to some degree.
GS It’s difficult when the body turns on itself.
LB Yes, it’s terrible. After the divorce, it wasn’t too long before I found I had too much time on my hands. Circumstances lured me into local politics. The adventure began.
Turned out New Bern had a Mayor, Tom Bayliss, and a Board of Aldermen that wasn’t responsive to its citizens. A great many residents of New Bern wanted fresh faces and minds running the city. I organized a little campaign and unseated the Mayor and all but one Board of Aldermen
Bayliss is a lifelong resident, of New Bern. He was Mayor for sixteen years. He’s a self-made million. I think he figured he was Mayor for life and Board of Aldermen went with him.
GS In one election, New Bern got a makeover.
LB Yes, it did. This is a wonderful city, with about 29,000 people. There are more women than there are men, in New Bern; the median age is about 39 years.
The weather is great; hurricanes bypass us. There’s a superb harbour and much sailing. Women and men, families, from all over the world want to live here.
It seems that for a long while, New Bern existed on its own, impervious to common sense. Government is for all the people, I knew, not only for the leaders.
Those running the city thought they owned the city. They refused to share, except with their friends. They thought they created New Bern and it was theirs to control and exploit.
To keep the fiefdom going, the leaders of New Bern almost discouraged families from moving here. New residents might have new or different ideas, which challenged the existing order. Still, new residents came, such as Jodi and I.
The isolation led to a divided population. There were those who migrated to New Bern and those who were native to the city or region. It was old versus new and, to some degree, is still.
GS How did the massive change come about?
LB New Bern was a fiefdom. It had been that way for at least 16 years. I got it into my head the heart of the problem facing New Bern was its ostensible leaders.
I wanted to fix the problem. This meant running for Mayor. This meant urging competent candidates to run for council seats, without fear of reprisal.
GS Did a particular issue or idea motive your run for Mayor?
LS New Bern has a beautiful waterfront. A private group tried to take it away, to sell it. The Mayor and Aldermen were ready to approve the sale.
I went to the Board of Aldermen, in 2007, and said, “Look, you have to protect the waterfront. You’re dealing with a private company that wants to steal it from New Bern. You can’t let this happen.
Bayliss, the Mayor, said, “I don’t have to listen to you.” We, Bayliss and I, went back and forth on this issue for four or five months. He knew I was right, but wouldn’t budge.
To end the dispute, the council convinced Governor Mike Easley, of North Carolina, a Democrat, to sign a law that allowed sale of the waterfront. Maybe, he was in bed with the New Bern council and mayor. I don’t know.
That’s how it began, in 2007. Bayliss laughed. I told him he now had more trouble than he imagined.
No one, with any chance of winning, had run against him in 16 years. He ruined anyone who dared oppose him. He said to me, “Okay, have your little fun.”
I worked at Emmanuel and Dunn, a law firm in New Bern. Bayliss tried to have me fired. When I started to question the wisdom of selling the waterfront, someone in the office of the Mayor called my boss, three times, trying to have me fired.
GS What reason was there for firing you?
LB I challenged Bayliss. He didn’t think I’d give up and his style was to ruin any opponents. I guess he thought pressuring my job, my income, might get me to back off.
My boss, to his credit, took the pressure. Still, such pressure flows downhill. My boss asked that I back off a bit.
Evidence makes the most noise. I showed my boss a paper trail, on the waterfront issue, which went back years and ended in the office of Governor Easley. This was at least two years before the Federal Government looked into Easley and the media reported the mess.
GS You were good to your word.
LB Bayliss lost his job; I won 58%, of the vote, to his 42%. All but one of the Aldermen, a gender imperfect term for city councillor, lost his or her seat, too. There was one Alderman, with whom I wanted to work; we pushed hard to keep that seat.
GS How did the citizens of New Bern take to your brand of politics?
LB There’s a huge split in town. Half the population is new to the city. They come from all over, New York, California or Germany, for example. The other half of the population is native to New Bern. I was the first person, ever, to defy, successfully, the city government. Indigenous New Bern residents didn’t know what to make of me; new residents were joyous.
A large law firm, in New Bern, tried to discredit me. Those who worked at this firm started calling me “other worldly,” “president of the flat earth society” and so forth. It was hilarious, but degrading to those attorneys and their firm.
GS Gives new meaning to the word, petty, in petty politics, too.
LB Right, everywhere I went, someone tried to discredit me. On the blog, of the local newspaper, the “Sun Journal,” they accused me of everything you can imagine. Someone claimed that I was a blackout drunk. Another blogger reported I was a paedophile.
GS Did anyone rebuke you for being a New Yorker?
LB No and that would’ve been welcome. After I won the election, a woman called to say she was going to report me to the police for flashing. I suggested she come to my house, tell my wife what she thinks I’m doing and then I’d turned myself into the police.
GS How did she respond?
LB She said she didn’t need to tell my wife. I tried to push her, but she backed off.
Another time, an elderly woman claimed I beat her up, at the local YMCA swimming pool. The police arrested me. At trial, the judge dismissed the charges.
The old-time residents didn’t care for me, at all. What do you expect? This Yankee comes to town. After less than 7 years, he becomes Mayor and starts to change the city.
GS How long is your term?
LB My term is four years. I just imposed term limits. No future Mayor of New Bern can serve more than two, four-year terms, ever, and that includes me. This goes for the Board of Aldermen, too.
GS What’s your top priority as Mayor?
LB Well, 2011 is the 300th anniversary of New Bern. It’s the second oldest city in North Carolina, founded in 1710 by Baron Christopher de Graffenried, who came from Bern, Switzerland. Every day, this year, there’s an event to celebrate and commemorate the city, which takes much time, in a good way.
Politically, New Bern faces a huge issue: our drawbridge. Today, only Chicago, Illinois, and Hoboken, New Jersey, depend on a drawbridge. A city of 29,000 can’t afford to assume a $41 million debt for a bridge it doesn’t need.
The last Board of Aldermen, including the previous Mayor, desperately wanted to build a drawbridge. I don’t know why. Maybe they wanted a new bridge to help celebrate the 300th anniversary of New Bern.
I started talking about how New Bern couldn’t afford this bridge. The debt is more than $1,400 a resident. What if it breaks; how will New Bern pay for repairs?
That issue heated up. Eventually, the new governor of this great state, of North Carolina, Bev Perude, called my boss, at Emmanuel and Dunn. They talked about my challenge to the drawbridge.
The morning after that call, I heard about it from my boss. “The Governor called me,” he says. “What are you doing taking on the Governor? Are you crazy? What’s happening? Why are you taking on the most powerful woman in the state? What’s going on with this bridge?
GS How did you respond?
LB The drawbridge, I said, is part of my job as Mayor. The voters of New Bern elected me to oversee city spending. Mostly, I thought it was interesting how the governor had nothing better to do than call my boss and complain about me doing my job.
GS Does New Bern need a drawbridge?
LB Well, we had an old bridge. It likely needed replacing. A normal bridge New Bern could probably afford, a drawbridge is beyond its means.
Mostly, the former Mayor and council wanted a new drawbridge. I’m unsure why New Bern couldn’t afford $41 million for a drawbridge and no one has said why it was important.
The last ten years involved much effort gearing up for the 300th anniversary. Bayliss, the former Mayor, could taste his increased prominence, which the celebrations would bring him. A fancy, if too expensive, new bridge maybe was to be the capstone of the former city council.
Instead, the 300th anniversary year centres on a new Mayor, new council and a new way of running the city. The former council did whatever Bayliss wanted. It passed debt funding for the bridge, without any sense of accountability. New Bern doesn’t work that way any longer.
GS Did you get drawbridge
LB The city didn’t accept the bridge plan. We’re working on it. I think we’ll get it right.
GS There was also the issue of you changing political parties.
LB Yes, to make it worse, in some ways, I’m now a Republican. A lifelong Democrat, the change was necessary for me to run against Bayliss. It was a difficult decision.
The Democratic Party, in North Carolina, I thought was too broken. Bayliss and the former governor, Easley, are obvious examples of the problem. When I changed parties, the media ran with it, claiming I was setting up to run for governor.
My boss, at Emmanuel and Dunn, was on me, again. “What was I doing? You’re Mayor for two months and announcing for governor. Have you gone mad?” Several people, allies and opponents, alike, suggested, seriously, that I seek psychiatric help.
GS Because you changed parties, became a Republican.
LB Yes, mostly, but my ideas about the bridge, term limits and so forth likely contributed.
It gets funnier and stranger. I remarried, in March 2010. My new wife, Nicole, is a marriage and family counsellor.
The first week, of our marriage, I say to Nicole, “As part of my continued employment, with Emmanuel and Dunn, I must see a psychiatrist because I became a Republican She laughed and took me through the DSM-IV-TR, the official handbook of psychiatric disorders, to see what sanctioned disorder I might suffer. Antisocial was our best guess.
After our adventures with the DSM, we go swimming at the YMCA. I’m an avid swimmer and, years ago, played Olympic-level water polo. At the “Y,” a new adventure in our marriage began.
GS It’s a bad movie.
I’m swimming, doing laps, and, suddenly, a woman starts yelling at us. We have no idea what’s what. After a while, we leave the “Y” and head home.
Two days later, pandemonium overtakes New Bern. As I come out of the courthouse, the local media confronts me. “We heard,” says a television reporter, “that you assaulted and beat up an elderly woman.”
Only moments before, I won a tough court case. My focus was elsewhere. What, I thought, is happening?
The big headline, that day, in the ‘Sun Journal,” was Bettis assaults elderly woman. Another headline was, Bettis arrested for assault on a female. Yet, another was Bettis charged with disorderly conduct.
That lasted for the summer of 2010. Making it worse is that I do much pro bono work for shelters and causes that protect battered women and children. My wife works with similar cases.
GS Did your pro bono clients support you?
LB Yes, without question, each of my pro bono clients stood behind me, had letters to the editor written and such.
GS Did you get your day in court?
LB For a long while, no judge would hear the case. There was no case. It didn’t happen, but, now and again, the media filled a slow news day by focusing on some nonsense and the hubbub went on for a day or two.
Finally, in August 2010, a judge travelled from the other side of the state, to conduct my trial. He dismissed the charges. Someone was trying to discredit me. The judge knew it. Everyone, even those who opposed me, politically, knew the charges were bogus.
GS Can’t successfully challenge the old-line party or become a Republican without much fall out.
LB Yes, it was statewide news, how, after I won the election Mayor and became a Republican, I beat-up an elderly woman. In the waiting room, at the dentist, I got those looks. “There’s the Mayor, he’s going to beat us up.”
I’m sure Emmanuel and Dunn, where I worked, at the time, found the accusations and trial untoward. Discredit me was to discredit the law firm, too. I don’t blame the law firm, at all, for wanting me to pull back.
I decided to open a law practice on my own. I scraped for pennies and put together a law practice in two weeks. We, Nicole and I, lost the house we were buying because of these false accusations.
GS That’s some price to pay for having a different idea and beating the machine.
LB There’s a price to pay for everything Until recently, the people in this town paid a heavy price, living in abject fear of their local government You couldn’t question the Mayor or Board of Aldermen, nor could you try to get rid of either, without reprisal. You couldn’t get permission to build anything unless you had a deal with the Mayor and Board of Aldermen
It was a game Friends of Bayliss and the Board of Aldermen got permission to build whatever they wanted; others did not. A clique ran New Bern; their game adversely affected the lives of men and women.
When I came to New Bern, I acted responsively and reasonably. I wanted to create good government that’s fair. This is what we’re doing, today. New term limits and questioning the new drawbridge are two early examples of responsibility.
GS How have the citizens of New Bern reacted to common sense radicalism?
The old power clique doesn’t like what we’re doing. They liked arbitrary and impulsive action, which benefited them. Much money was at stake.
Say, you owned swampland worth $2 an acre. You are not going to put septic tanks on the land to develop it; that’s too expensive. No, you convince your pals, those on Board of Aldermen, to give you permission to install sewer-service and agree to run the sewer to your swampland, at city expense.
The $2-an-acre land is suddenly worth $25,000 an acre. If you have 500 acres, which isn’t much land, around here, your profit is $12,499,000, on one deal. Friends of the old-power clique lost many profitable sources of income in 2009.
Some long-time citizens of New Bern don’t trust change. They believe change endangers what little they have, especially a predictable lifestyle. This might help explain the elderly woman who claimed I assaulted her.
GS You grew up in Africa.
LB Yes, born in Los Angeles, in 1964, at the UCLA Medical Centre, and spent my childhood mostly in Africa. My mother, Lucia Giovanna D’Antonio, was one of the first Peace Corp volunteers. My father, Lee Wilton Bettis, Sr., worked for the US Government, with the Peace Corp. My sister, Stacey, was the first child born to a Peace Corp volunteer.
GS Can you remind me about the Peace Corp.
LB During the Presidential Campaign, of 1960, John Kennedy dared the youth of America to serve their country by living and working in developing countries. On 1 March 1961, the Peace Corp formed to promote world peace and friendship. More than 200,000 volunteers have worked in 139 countries over the past fifty years.
GS Straightforward ideas always work best.
LB Yes, and not longer after the birth of my sister, in Chile, my family moved, briefly, to Los Angeles. My father attended UCLA and I arrived. Then we moved to Africa for several years and, finally, Brazil.
I went to high school in Washington, DC, and graduated from Slippery Rock University (SRU). It’s a public university in Pennsylvania, about an hour north of Pittsburgh. I grew up playing water polo. When I was ready for university, I also played Olympic-level water polo and SRU was one of the few schools, on the east coast, with a relevant sports programme. SRU also places much emphasis on leadership and civic responsibility, which serves me well.
After SRU, I worked in the office of Representative Dr Les Aspin. It was a great first job, but it paid only $14,000. I had a second job, unloading trucks at Dulles Airport, from 7 pm until 2 am. Those years were tough, but worth the sacrifice.
If my job on the Hill didn’t pay well, Aspin was exceptional. I learned much. Aspin was a Rhodes Scholar, professor of economics at Marquette University, and a common sense Democrat, with a strong interest in US defence policy.
When he first ran for Congress, the Democratic Party didn’t support him. In 1987, the Democrats removed him as Chair of the Armed Services Committee, for a brief time. He favoured Republican polices on the MX missile and military support for Kuwait, in 1991.
Wisconsin voters elected Aspin, in 1970. They re-elected him a dozen times. Aspin challenged his party for the right reasons, a fact seldom lost on voters.
GS He was Secretary of Defence for a brief time, I think.
LB Yes, he passed away after only a year or so in that office. President Clinton appointed Aspin as Secretary of Defence, in 1993, largely, I think, for his independent style.
I worked, hard, with Aspin for years. A Congressional Aide is a demanding job, but I learned how to work front-line Washington. Aspin befriended me. He was a great man.
When Aspin passed away, I wondered what I’d do.
GS What did you consider doing?
LB I seriously thought about doctoral study in Classical Philosophy, at Catholic University. My mother convinced me otherwise. She said I must check the classified advertisements, in the Washington “Post,” for jobs calling for a PhD in Classical Philosophy.
I thought about a preretirement. Maybe I could travel in Europe, paint or bartend in Australia. Instead, I moved to New York City, fell in love and enrolled at Brooklyn Law School.
GS Brooklyn Law School seems a great distance from Classical Philosophy.
LB True, I guess, but my mother was right. After graduating, I worked for Jerry Shargel. An alumnus of Brooklyn Law, he is and was the top criminal defence attorney in New York City, if not the USA.
GS Didn’t Shargel defend John Gotti, the ostensible crime family boss, the “Teflon Don”?
LB Yes, in 1990, New York State charged John Gotti for the murder of Paul Castellano, then the reputed head of the Gambino crime family. Bruce Cutler, another graduate of Brooklyn Law School, successfully defended Gotti, in the 1980s. The State appealed the Gotti dismissal; for the new trial, Shargel joined Cutler.
New York State claimed Shargel and Cutler acted as house counsel for the Gambino family. They had special knowledge of family business. Such knowledge, argued the State, made Shargel and Cutler possible witnesses.
For them to represent Gotti, in this criminal case, was a conflict of interest. A judge agreed. He removed Shargel and Cutler from the Gotti defence team.
GS How was working at Shargel?
LB Shargel was boot camp. He drives his attorneys hard. He drives himself harder than anyone imagines. He needs only four hours of sleep a night, the other twenty hours he works and works.
When Shargel hires an attorney for his firm, fresh-faced or well seasoned, he tosses him or her into the middle of everything. There’s no honeymoon time at Shargel.
Working for Shargel was intensive. Days and weeks flew by, fast. In the office, ready to go by eight am. If at trial, get back from court around 5:30 pm. Then research and prepare until 11 pm.
There was, thankfully, a car to shuttle us from court to the office and home after the workday ended. At 11 pm, I ate dinner, went to bed and got up at 7 am to start another day. Weekends and holidays, I worked at least until noon and, often, until late into the night.
GS Did he pay more than $14,000?
LB Yes, a bit and Shargel was in the office all the time. He’s smart. He works hard for his clients, but has an explosive temper
Once, I was in court, with him. I was responsible for documents, thousands of documents. He asked me for a specific document. I took about twenty seconds to find it and hand it to him.
After court, he started yelling. “A high school kid could do it faster.” Yes, that’s what he’s yelling, “A high school kid.” Still, we got along great.
GS On the edge, in many ways, I guess.
LB Yes and I tried quitting a few times. I didn’t appreciate why he was driving himself and everyone much harder than necessary. Each time I tried to quit, Shargel said, “You were in the Marines. You worked with explosive ordinances. You should be used to the intensity.”
Eventually, I said, Jerry, the difference between a bomb and working with you is I knew when a bomb was going off.”
He said “Fair enough,” gave me a raise and I stayed.
GS You were a member of the US Marine Corps.
LB I joined after high school, on 10 September 1982. After seeing the Marine Silent Drill Team, the idea of signing up hit me. It seemed cool, a great challenge and a duty. Signing up was something a seventeen year old does. After Paris Island, I spent two years in active duty and several years as a reserve.
The Marines were good for me in an unexpected way. Through high school, I played goalie for the water polo team. The Marines encouraged me to continue to play the sport, gave me time off to practice and play. With its support, I rose to Olympic level and Division 1 Champion.
GS Back to Shargel, he liked attorneys willing to go toe-to-toe with him.
LB Yes, I think so, and he’s generous. Shargel gave me opportunities another law firm would not, unless I had years of experience. Straight out of law school, I worked on high-profile cases. That’s unmatchable experience for a new attorney.
Shargel threw me into the line of fire. I worked lengthy and complex federal Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) cases. The name, RICO, has an ominous, menacing ring to it; it sounds gangster-ish, which I think is intentional.
The defence rarely, if ever, wins as RICO case, but the experience is priceless. Shargel threw me into the shark tank right out of law school. I can’t thank him enough.
GS Do you recall your first RICO Act case?
LB Yes, Anthony Spero, allegedly leader of the Bonanno crime family. The RICO charges against Spero were for extortion, loan sharking and murder. Spiro looked like my Italian uncle Joe, I’m part Italian; he presented as harmless
Of course, his conviction was in the bag the day he the charge dropped. In 2002, Spero started serving a life sentence. RICO cases are a difficult, to the least, for the defence. Spero died in prison on 2 October 2008.
GS Do Shargel and Cutler, among others, work on the assumption everyone deserves a good defence.
LB The right to a competent defence is basic Americana. The US Constitution comes alive in criminal trials. The Constitution seeks to protect. Criminal allegations call for the most protection; the outcomes are most harsh, such as a lifetime in jail or the death penalty.
A typical woman and man have no experience with criminal justice. Perhaps, they get a speeding ticket or don’t pay a parking fine on time. Most of us find it difficult to challenge authority.
The idea that a judge or jury usually finds a criminal defendant not guilty is widespread, but false. Conviction is most likely in a criminal trial. Too often, those charged, with a criminal offence, lack the money or knowledge to present a reasonable defence.
GS Do you think criminal law tilts against the accused?
LB Yes, to some extent, and “Law, and Order,” the television show, is close to the truth, today. The wherewithal and influence of the State, the prosecutor, ensures mostly wins. If the charge, in any way, has gravitas, such as an RICO or a capital crime, the trial steeply tilts to the prosecution.
On television, “Perry Mason,” the defence attorney, always won. Mason made the prosecutor look like a buffoon. I don’t think criminal law ever worked that way, but viewers got that impression, believed it and acted on it.
“Mattlock,” another television defence attorney, never lost, either. He always had a trick up his sleeve. That doesn’t work either, but, as with Perry Mason, left viewers with the impression not guilty until a judge or jury decides otherwise worked.
After 9/11, “Law and Order,” on which the prosecutor usually, if not always, wins, became the norm on television. It also became typical in courtrooms across America. The notion left by this slant is if accused then guilty, else why accused. Less and less, guilt is not a question for testing, but a predetermination.
GS Post 9/11, the law is more about persecuting. It’s almost guilty by accusation. “A Grand Jury will indict a ham sandwich,” as Gerry Spence often said during the OJ Simpson trail, in 1995.
LB Yes and the first duty of a criminal defence attorney is thus to protect the rights of his or her client. Unless women and men, such as Jerry Shargel, stand firm and force the State to make its case, thoroughly and competently, justice is empty. Someone has to uphold the Constitution: guilty until a judge or jury decides otherwise is the standard.
Guilt by accusation or belief isn’t good for the USA or its citizens. Such ideas foreshadow a collapse into totalitarianism. Until balance restores, America moves closer to the abyss.
GS What does it take to restore and uphold the balance?
LB To uphold the Constitution means you must be Caesar’s Wife, that is, beyond reproach. Shargel is consistently under a microscope. Prosecutors know the smallest dent to his armour damages his clients, present and future.
Prosecutors depend on human nature. For up to two or three months, maybe longer, jurors share the courtroom with the accused. Prosecutors repeat how the accused, say, Anthony Spero, is a mobster, how he ordered men murdered, how he lied, cheated and stole; how he is inhumane.
Advertisers know repetition eventually takes hold and sells products. Repetition also sells ideas. After weeks or months, of hearing Spero, for example, is a gangster, jurors begin to think it might be true.
Maybe he looks as if he might be a movie or television gangster. Prosecution witnesses reinforce the idea he’s a criminal, claiming, repeatedly, he ordered killings or is a loan shark. Perhaps, these witnesses seek revenge, less time in jail for their own crimes or their fifteen minutes of fame, but the prosecutor dissuades and distracts the jury from thinking about such explanations.
For the prosecution, circumstantial evidence mixes well with the stereotypes jurors carry around in their heads. It doesn’t bode well for the defendant. Too often, the evidence is opinion.
Who knows why a jury decides a defendant guilty? Does the defendant remind a juror of his or her cranky neighbour? When the evidence is open to a wide range of interpretations, juries play it safe, which means conviction.
GS It looks good for prosecutors with political ambitions.
LB Sure and the State, the government at any level, have the wherewithal. Defendants have what they own, saved or can borrow. RICO cases can deprive defendants of their savings, possessions, access to loans and so forth, before and during trail.
Defence attorneys, such as Shargel, are thus critical. Someone must stand for the rights of the accused. Otherwise, the State may trample defendants.
GS From your experience, do the asserted crime bosses, for example, present as mad killers? The prosecutors and media would like us to think they do.
LB Here’s an example. I had dinner with Anthony Spero, a few times during the RICO trial. Once, I finished eating my dinner and instinctively, took a bite of extra food off his plate. I caught myself too late. I figured I was in deep trouble. Shargel was with us, too. Spero laughed, said something about his nephews, who are about my age, doing the same and that was that.
Another time, I made a positive comment about one of his daughters, who was with us at that meal. He gave the look any caring father would give a young man interested in his daughter. I understood, well, as I’m part Italian.
GS How you think your experiences, working with Dr Aspin and Jerry Shargel, helped when you moved to New Bern and involved in its politics?
LB Shargel gave me great training, on one front-line, that is, high-profile RICO cases from day one. Aspin gave me great training on another front-line, working on top-level Congressional projects, finding ways to make workable deals, from day one. When I arrived in New Bern, I knew how to focus and manage large-scale issues; authority didn’t intimidate me; I had the tenacity of an ex-Marine and Olympic-level athlete.
The waterfront issue, of course, came first. Once I saw the evidence, I knew the city was in trouble. My experience assured I would not back down or away until the problem resolved.
The marina was part of a Sheraton Hotel, run by the Soleil Group. It wanted to sell the slips for $41 million. The goal was profit, not to better New Bern.
A group, of local residents, approached me, as a lawyer, working for Emmanuel and Dunn. Was it possible, these citizens asked, to stop the sale? I had to think about it and work it over; adequately answering such a question takes time.
I took three days off work. I jumped into it. I started digging into it.
That New Bern owned the Waterfront, not any private interest, was my first discovery. Only the owner had the right to sell the slips or any part of the dock. Soleil Group didn’t have the right to sell any part of what it ran, for the city.
I verified the facts and my interpretation. I talked with Tom Bayliss, who was Mayor at the time. I presented the issues, the facts and the concerns of many citizens.
Next day, calls to my boss, at Emmanuel and Dunn, demanding it fire me, began. “I can’t believe Bettis is doing this,” said Bayliss to my boss. “He’s bad for New Bern. Tell him to leave it alone.”
I wouldn’t leave it alone. The evidence trail was long. The law was clear.
I organized a group, New Bern Aware (NBA). Membership in NBA grew to 500 in two months, in a city of 29,000 women, men and children. That’s unheard-of growth for a new political group in a smaller city.
We made a difference. No slip sold. After we stood up, everybody said, “You know what? We can stand up to Bayliss. Nothing bad is going to happen to us.”
Aspin and Shargel, the Marines and competitive athletics helped me develop a thick skin. There was intense criticism and attacks on my character. My experience gets me through and past the opposition.
I needed to work, to pay the bills. I must seek and work with clients, go to court, to the market, to the gas station. I’m grateful for the chance to develop a thick skin before I moved to New Bern.
I was fortunate that my boss, at Emmanuel and Dunn, was sympathetic. He fended off many tries to stop me or have me fired. He genuinely worried about the effect, on me, of the political fracas I was causing.
“Lee,” he would say, “you can’t stick your head out. What are you doing? You’re going to crash and burn.” He didn’t know I could juggle the old guard of New Bern, with one hand, thanks to Les Aspin and Jerry Shargel.
GS New residents bring new ideas about what’s acceptable and what’s not; what’s right and what’s wrong.
LB Sure, we bring outside experiences to this small city and use it for to better New Bern I’m a painter, an artist, and I’m a painter. I could make a decent living painting abstracts to hang in a museum or your home.
I see New Bern as a canvas that we, the citizens, create. It’s a rare opportunity, to help ready a city for the future. The benefits will accrue for centuries.
GS Is your law practice specialized.
LB I do a little of everything, criminal, domestic. Someone needs an attorney, for most any reason, I can handle the case. Anyone who comes to me knows I’ll fight, hard, on his or her behalf.
Living in third world countries, such as many in Africa and, to some extent, Brazil, helped me understand dire poverty. Such countries have the poorest living conditions you can imagine.
New Bern is about 45% Black. Their living conditions are typically not good. The city can do much to help these citizens, when there’s a will.
There’s a strong sense of anomie, hopelessness, in the Black community. At least one generation of Blacks, in New Bern, ekes out a bare existence. They have no hope, of any sort, for the future.
Drugs, too often, console the hopeless. Each day, there’s a line of Blacks, mostly men, winding through the courts in New Bern. Most everyone, in this line, is on a drug-related charge, of some kind.
The previous fiefdom did nothing. The Black community slide to the farthest margin of New Bern. Blacks were and are on the edge.
We’re trying to help make the Black community a full part of New Bern; it’s their city, too. As long as Blacks are teetering on the edge, America, too, faces the abyss. There’s a sense of purposelessness, at the edge, and hopelessness.
I work to change these circumstances. I’m not alone, but it’s a long, drawn-out job. City council is with me on this challenge, which is fortunate. The drug problem won’t end on my watch, but I’ll lay a foundation for solving that problem.
GS Seems you have a strong, self-imposed mandate.
LB Yes, but I give Aldermen the right to argue and vote as they wish, as they believe their constituents want. The current council is more representative, of New Bern, than in the past. There are three Blacks and three Whites; one of the Whites is from the Midwest and one is from New York. The former council had five White men and one Black Woman.
I fully empowered the current council. Previously, Aldermen understood how they were to vote and did. Crumbs, such as assured re-election, fell to those who towed the line. Those who didn’t, if anyone ever failed to tow the line, it meant his or her run.
Today, I say, vote your conscience. Vote how your constituents want you to vote. There’s no back alley or behind-the-scenes agenda, we take New Bern where it wants to go, within reason, of course.
GS Did unexpected practices, of past Board of Aldermen, surprise you?
LB When I ran for Mayor, women and men asked, straight out, “How much will you pay for my vote?” In the past, a voter might get from one dollar to five dollars for their vote. It shocked me.
GS What a sham, that’s archaic. Such a small reward sought for such a huge misdeed.
LB True and, in the south, men and women prefer to avoid arguments or any disagreement. Now, I have Board of Aldermen debating issues. Heated debates are uncomfortable for many citizens of New Bern, but productive.
I run a dignified city council meeting. I make sure every move is transparent. We have orderly debates. Sometimes the debates heat up. In the end, we disagree without becoming disagreeable.
GS That’s a great distinction.
LB It comes from working with Aspin, in Washington. I saw how the Federal Government worked. My father was an employee of the Federal Government.
At first, my idea was that America worked from the top, government, down to the citizens. Those who disagreed with you were also disagreeable toward you. Journalists, for example, seldom disagreed with politicians because it meant exclusion from the inner circle, no invitation to snazzy events and such.
Compromises came hard. Usually, compromise meant compensation. Pork barrel politics, as you know, is common in Washington.
After leaving Washington, I found another America, which Washington didn’t recognise. I’m not sure I understood, at the time, what was going on in America. I moved to New York City, in 1996, to find out.
In New York, I did every job you can imagine. I washed dishes, waited on tables and walked dogs; whatever it took. I learned about America on the streets of New York City.
I walked the neighbourhoods, of New York City. I saw how Republicans and Democrats, at that level, fashioned factions to win elections. Coalitions of increasingly extreme views, on minor issues, formed the voter base; those who disagreed, regardless of their common sense, were evil.
GS Disagreement forged disagreeableness.
LB Yes and to ensure an election win, politicians pandered to extreme views. The ultra-narrow focus and view, of minor issues, honestly made me wonder. My certainty, about the effectiveness of one party over the over, vanished.
Differences, I came to understand, exist only in surface images. Otherwise, both parties are the same. Elections focused on surface images.
An honest divide exists in New Bern, today; old ideas about governing clash with new, more open ideas. My plan, to mend the divide, is to start a debate or, even, only encourage free and open contact. Once the sides are talking, change and improvement are sure to follow.
The analogy is travel. Those who travel embrace a fuller, well-rounded world-view. When political opponents talk, freely, honestly, a common respect and understanding develop. Even if opponents only agree to disagree, they’ve agreed to something. This makes honest compromise and progress possible.
I had Dr. Fleming Bell, in from the Institute of Government, at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, talk to the citizens of New Bern. He talked about local government, how it works, should work and can work. Dr. Bell shocked many voters when he explained how the Board of Aldermen and the city manager, Mike Epperson, run local government, not the Mayor. Epperson reports to the Board, not the Mayor.
GS Do you believe your ideas are exportable to the state or national level?
LB I believe my ideas are working in New Bern. On a larger scale, it’s hard to tell. That decision calls for more time and information than I have right now.
New Bern is a manageable size, with 29,000 residents. Larger cities, a state or the nation, contain much more diversity and opposition to any idea than New Bern. Larger constituencies involve more stakes holders, which leads to more lasting opposition and more time and effort to settle.
Will what works in small-town America translate to the larger community. I do not know. It might be worth a try. Ask me again in a year or two.
GS What’s the major obstacle in your way?
LB The increasingly irrelevant understanding of civics, of how America works, in the largest sense, is the problem. My biggest reservation stems from what education doesn’t do. I don’t think Americans know enough or care enough about civics.
Every day, fewer Americans know and understand America. As I mentioned, the law is that anyone and everyone is not guilty until a judge or jury decides otherwise. I suspect that anyone who watches too much television believes if the police arrest someone, he or she is guilty; if a judge or jury decides otherwise, it’s a travesty and untrue.
Jared Lee Loughner, who shot 19 men, women and children, on 8 January 2011, in Tucson, is not guilty until he pleads guilty or a trial ends in a guilty verdict. You wouldn’t get this idea from much of the media coverage. Perhaps he’s legally insane, which may preclude a guilty verdict.
GS Why did civics fall from grace?
LB We’ve grown up in a time when we don’t need to know or understand much of anything. Most Americans don’t face food shortages, for example. Although unemployment is high, today, work is usually available: cash your pay cheque, go to the grocery store and stock up.
GS I just bought a new car using e-mail and my phone.
LB Exactly, but an easy life is often full of contradictions. When routine fulfillment of needs, such as food, shelter or safety, exists, we grow content. We expect all other areas, of life, such as law and governance, to come as easily and as favourably as does food, shelter and safety.
While we weren’t looking, law and governance assumed a new shape. Politicians focus on re-election, now, not the interests of their constituents. Career-focused prosecutors use the wherewithal of the State to overwhelm defendants and win cases, despite the Constitution.
GS Rickie Johnson, William Gaye and Clarence Harrison each served 20 or more years in prison because of prosecutor mistakes. The Innocence Project has cleared them and 263 others.
LB That’s my point. Most women and men are unable to afford a reasonable defence; that is, a defence comparable to what the prosecution presents. Those who can afford justice get it. Those who can’t afford such a defence are at the mercy of the law.
As long as we don’t need the law or government to help us, life is easy and good. If we need such help, we find elected officials too busy and bureaucrats unable or disinterested. When we need the help our taxes supposedly provide, we find the focus shifted away from us, often toward those who don’t need such benefits.
Still, the economic hardships, of the past few years, may have a latent, positive effect. For the first time in a generation or more, elected officials have no choice but to decide matters that affect everyone. Almost every city, of every size, must drastically cut its budget, now.
Many, who paid little attention to municipal affairs, five years ago, may face a significant decrease in garbage removal or the fire and police departments, health clinics, snow removal, up north, and so forth. Why is this necessary? In part, a too easy life meant almost no one was watching what was going on, including, it seems, some elected officials.
Civics lectures, in school, today, it appears, go in one ear and out the other. Newspaper coverage of local government goes in one eye and out the other. No one was watching as the governance and politics self-destructed.
GS Camden, New Jersey is laying off 400 police officers and 200 firefighters.
LB See and guess what? Those are the decisions voters ask about. Until there’s a major problem, no one notices.
When voters notice, it’s often too late. Garbage piles up at the curb. Gangs roam the streets.
Bewilderment besets elected officials when denied re-election. “Hey,” they say, “I didn’t do anything.” Right and the newly elected must start almost from scratch, which takes time.
An interest in civics does much good. Citizens know, to some degree, about governance. When they know what’s what, they notice anomalies and ask questions.
A city council, anywhere, is only as good as those who elect it. Voters, who are aware, elect better candidates. The better the city council, the better is the lifestyle in a community.
GS A tempting quick fix is to resort to the private sector. Private garbage removal is an example.
LB When the private companies assume these tasks public interest goes out the window. Public interest is often expensive and of almost no concern to private companies. A fire department, contracted from a private company, might cut costs to the barest of bones to turn a profit; ditto for the police, by-law enforcement and so on.
Companies have shareholders to protect and profits to earn. Control is what earns profit. Control the market. Control costs. Control risk management. Control, which has its place, may not be in the public interest.
Many more gated communities, for example will appear. So, too, more police forces that are private and, perhaps, less concerned with rights. This approach is common in Africa, Brazil, Peru. In such countries, the State doesn’t have the money to provide dependable public services.
The rich get the services. The rest of us take our chances. Cities and communities sink into the depths.
GS It’s sad.
LB It is, but some communities or neighbourhoods in large cities take the initiative. There’s a different levy to ensure sanitation services, safety and so forth. It’s an informal way of meeting basic needs.
GS Do you think the media are to blame?
LB Yes, in a way, I do. Television is all about video and a few words, delivered in slogan-style. The more confrontational or controversial those few words, the better. That’s the television approach and I must deal with it, like it or not.
The decline of the newspaper and news magazines may have more effect. Print is about the only medium where any depth or the complete story is possible. Few adults read news any more, preferring 30-second video snippets on television to 3000-word analyses.
GS Video didn’t only kill the radio star, but the aware citizen, too.
LB I suppose that’s true. America founded on the idea everyone read facts, accurately provided in a balance way, to find meaning in what they read. The goal, I think, was a personal meaning. The pool of personal meanings would vent at town hall meetings and in casting votes to benefit the general good.
Today, if the media doesn’t provide a “right” meaning, audiences show disinterest. There is not a universally right meaning, usually. It should be a matter of what the reader, listener or viewer decides. Yet, the media creates the impression there is one meaning, that is, what the media decides an event, issue or personality means.
If media choice existed, media meanings might not be a concern. Media consolidation, into a few companies, reduces or removes choice, in most cities. Worse, I think, different media parrot one another.
I think the media must help us bring home meaning. Given facts, presented by the media, how does an issue affect New Bern? The media shouldn’t tell me what to think, only what to think about, today.
GS You’re a musician, I read.
LB Yes, I sing and play guitar. I started band, when I lived in New York City, called “Earplugs.” A little kid heard us and said, “You guys are loud, I need earplugs.” On New Year’s Eve, 2010, we performed at the Harvey Mansion, in New Bern.
GS How funny is that.
LB In court, managing council meetings or playing in a band, it’s much the same. You must convince an audience you’re credible and relevant. If you can’t show credibility, don’t expect rewards.
GS The Mayor sings for his supper.
LB I’ve done worse, I suppose. The music fits with being Mayor, a lawyer, a painter and all that I do. Each role demands I find a way to make parts, sometimes different parts, work together. No matter which realm, it’s creative.
GS What’s the future?
LB We hope to create a renaissance for the Black community, in New Bern. I contacted Steven Ballard, Chancellor of East Carolina University, in Greensville, for some help. We want to return a sense of dignity to those citizens; we want all our citizens to hold their heads high and proud. Rebuilding the Black community, in New Bern, is a long-term project, but I want to get it started in 2011.
I want to revive an interest in civics. It’s not a flashy issue, but important. No one should be afraid of government. If you know how it works and stay tuned, even a little bit, government works for you.
There’s reluctance, here, to question authority. I want to urge everyone, who wishes, to disagree with me in public. If I can’t defend my position or adjust it because of good new information, then I should not be Mayor. Debate and discuss move New Bern forward, for everyone.
GS The future seems bright for New Bern, what about Lee Bettis?
LB I want to learn more about being Mayor, governing a smaller town, making Board of Aldermen increasingly responsive to the voters. This is a big challenge. For now, it’s what I do.
The minds of Americans build on a blend of beliefs. For example, what’s good for business is good for America. The news media are fair, accurate and unbiased. Fewer freedoms and more compliance, today, are the price of a stable future. Leaders work for the good of the people. In this sense, the American mind is no different from the minds of the French, Dutch or Japanese.
Though seldom based on fact, beliefs are influential. Lee Bettis, for example, discovered the Soleil Group wanted to sell the New Bern docks, which it didn’t own, to avoid bankruptcy. News reports, of the empty charge he beat-up an elderly woman, were careless. Forced to furthest edge of the community and deprived of hope, many Blacks, in New Bern, turned to illegal drug use. The former leaders of New Bern did not work for the good of its citizens. In this sense, too, New Bern is not alone.
When he moved to New Bern, Bettis saw, stated and bared many basic problems crippling the city. His experience, working with Dr. Les Aspin and Gerry Shargel, honed his ability to detect and explain the effects of the problems facing New Bern. His training an Olympic athlete as well as two years in the Marines provided the grit to offer reasonable fixes for the problems. In this sense, New Bern is fortunate it found a hero.
Lee Bettis, Jr., is a mythical hero. As a newcomer, a stranger, with exceptional skills, he noticed problems and provided solutions. Illegally, a business tries to sell part of the town for profit. Unwisely, the mayor and Board of Aldermen decide to build a bridge, which New Bern doesn’t need and can’t afford. Immorally, 45% of the citizens, of New Bern, exist hopelessly at the furthest edge of the community.
Seldom does everyone accept a hero. The elderly woman, for example, who claimed, perhaps mischievously, that Bettis assaulted her. Those who thought he needed psychiatric help after he changed political parties. The media relentlessly chases him, oversimplifying or exaggerating his efforts, such as freely debating issues at public meetings; trying to make him a spectacle that attracts listeners, viewers or readers and increases profits.
Bettis persists. He’s a model hero. New Bern, North Carolina is much the better for it.
Will Wright (1977), “Six Guns and Society” published by University of California Press.
Click here for a list of all Grub Street Interviews.
Interview edited and condensed for publication.
dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.
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