EAST ST. LOUIS - A federal jury on Wednesday convicted former police chief Ronald Matthews of plotting to obstruct federal agents and lying to a grand jury investigating a felon who illegally carried a handgun as an auxiliary police officer.
Matthews, 56, resigned after being indicted last January on charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice, attempted obstruction of justice and perjury.
The jury deliberated less than three hours before convicting Matthews, rejecting defense claims that Matthews was set up by federal agents eager to ensnare a "bigger fish" as a trophy.
U.S. District Judge G. Patrick Murphy let Matthews remain free on bond pending his sentencing March 20.
"I'm just disappointed right now," said Matthews' attorney, Stephen Welby. "I thought we tried a fair case and we're taking it to the next level. We definitely will appeal."
Matthews showed no reaction to the verdict and declined to comment while leaving the courtroom.
Prosecutors alleged that Matthews plotted to shield auxiliary officer Ayoub "Dave" Qattoum from a possible criminal probe and deportation after the volunteer was found to be a felon in possession of a firearm.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith called Matthews' conviction "an important case for the people of East St. Louis."
During closing arguments hours earlier, Goldsmith dismissed Welby's claim that Matthews' was an innocent entrapped by federal authorities, telling jurors "the only thing I was waiting to hear was that I was on the grassy knoll in Dallas when JFK was shot."
"This is not a scheme by the government," Goldsmith said.
The charges against Matthews related to his activities after Qattoum's August 2004 arrest during a dispute over a traffic stop where Qattoum was found to have a .38-caliber handgun. Under federal law, Qattoum was not entitled to have a gun as a convicted felon.
On Wednesday, Goldsmith cast Qattoum as well-connected, quick to give loans or kickbacks to Matthews and other local elected officials "to curry favor" for grants and other considerations as the owner of a convenience store. Matthews made Qattoum an auxiliary officer "because Dave liked to play cop," Goldsmith said.
"In the world of East St. Louis politics, Dave was the goose that laid the golden egg," Goldsmith said. "He spread that money around."
Authorities accused Matthews of commandeering the local investigation of Qattoum's arrest after Qattoum, a Jordanian national, expressed fear that U.S. immigration officials had learned of his legal troubles and might have him deported. Prosecutors alleged that Matthews refused to submit the case to local prosecutors for review, and hid from grand jurors and immigration officials the gun seized from Qattoum, falsely claiming the weapon was lost or stolen.
Goldsmith said Matthews' role in the "scheme to save Dave" as it unfolded was evident in the chief's own words - conversations secretly recorded by Rudy McIntosh, the city's deputy police chief who was an FBI informant.
On some of the recordings played for jurors Wednesday, Matthews is heard saying "anything I do I do for Dave" and "I'm going to do everything for Dave to make sure it's closed out."
Welby told jurors the federal agents looked to ensnare Matthews because they believed "there's no bigger fish, no bigger trophy that an FBI agent can have than a high-profile defendant in handcuffs." McIntosh helped the FBI because "he wanted to be the next chief," Welby insisted.
Matthews' former secretary, Ja'nerra Carson-Slaughter, pleaded guilty in March to a related conspiracy count and awaits sentencing. She testified Tuesday against Matthews as part of a plea deal.
Qattoum, 41, was sentenced in August to one year and nine months in federal prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice and unlawful possession of a weapon by a felon. He faces deportation after serving his sentence.