Originally created 05/26/05

Worker tells of 'Focus' scheme



Year after year, Augusta Focus General Manager Frederick Benjamin repeated circulation numbers for the newspaper that he knew were gross exaggerations, he told the jury in state Sen. Charles Walker's federal trial Wednesday.

He never once confronted Mr. Walker with the inflated circulation claims during his nearly 18 years at Mr. Walker's newspaper, Mr. Benjamin said. The closest he came to mentioning it was in 1986, Mr. Benjamin testified. He suggested in a report to Mr. Walker that advertisers might not be getting their money's worth. The notion was greeted with silence.

"I felt rather bad about it, that I might have overstepped my bounds. I never addressed it again," Mr. Benjamin testified.

Mr. Walker is standing trial on more than 100 charges of conspiracy, fraud and filing false tax returns. The charges stem from five alleged schemes to steal money.

One of those cited in the 66-page indictment is that Mr. Walker defrauded some of his Augusta Focus advertisers.

Mr. Walker has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Mr. Benjamin wasn't the only former Augusta Focus employee to testify Wednesday that the real circulation number was a fraction of what advertisers were told. And representatives of national retail businesses who advertised with the Focus said the same.

Kmart employee Mary Allard testified that her company advertised with the Focus for four years until September 2003. That's when a Kmart representative called the newspaper to verify a circulation figure of nearly 30,000. She was told it was really only 5,000.

The call was made a few weeks after FBI agents raided the Focus' office and found thousands of unused advertisers' fliers, an FBI agent testified Tuesday.

"When we couldn't get a clear answer, we stopped advertising with them," Ms. Allard said.

Between what the company was overcharged and the wasted expense of printing and shipping fliers to be inserted in nonexistent newspapers, Ms. Allard estimated Kmart's losses at $206,878.

Those wasted fliers from Kmart, Best Buy and other advertisers were packed into a small pickup and taken to a recycling center, Ellison Walker testified. Ellison Walker, no relation to the senator, usually had to make two trips to the center each week to ensure the fliers didn't overflow the Focus' storage space, he testified.

John B. Hall Jr., the owner of Hall Marketing in Augusta, testified that advertisers use newspaper circulation figures to decide which papers get their ads. The bottom line is the number of papers sold, not the estimated number of people who read the paper, Mr. Hall testified. Readership is generally considered to be 2.3 times the circulation number, he said.

Mr. Walker's defense attorney - who told the jury in his opening statement Tuesday that the Focus used the estimated number of readers as its circulation figure - repeatedly questioned Mr. Hall about the meaning of "circulation."

When Mr. Hall insisted that newspapers and advertisers define circulation as the number of papers sold, the defense attorney brought out a copy of Black's Law Dictionary to show it listed "total readers" as one definition of circulation. Mr. Hall said he didn't know how the Focus employees defined the word.

Former Augusta Focus sales representative Wendy Mathis testified that she once told a potential advertiser the number of newspapers printed each week. When Mr. Walker learned what she did, "he was very upset with me," Ms. Mathis testified.

Mr. Walker told her she should have talked about readership, not circulation, Ms. Mathis testified. She did that first, but when the customer asked her directly how many papers were actually printed, she answered honestly, Ms. Mathis testified. Mr. Walker insisted she still should have given readership numbers. During the discussion he hit the desk with his hands, she testified.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.

Developments

- Eighteen witnesses have testified for the prosecution.

- Prosecutors wrapped up their presentation of evidence concerning allegations that Mr. Walker defrauded those who paid to have advertising circulars inserted in his newspaper and are expected to begin presenting evidence on another alleged scheme today.

- Late Wednesday night, U.S. District Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr. told jurors that he intended to release one of the four alternates.