Saturday, July 26, 2003

RICHMOND — People here either love or hate former City Council member Sa’ad El-Amin, and soon he’ll be gone from public life.

El-Amin, 62, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court on July 1 to one count of conspiracy to defraud the federal government. He faces a maximum of three years in prison when sentenced Oct. 17.

The recent legal troubles are the latest chapter in the life of a man who moved to Richmond 34 years ago wanting to change the world.

A New York City native, El-Amin was born Jeroyd W. Greene. He went to Yale, where he earned business and law degrees. He wanted to stand up for the have-nots.

“He was fresh, bright and eager to make a name for himself, as all attorneys are,” said Michael Morchower, a criminal-defense lawyer who has known El-Amin since 1969. “He was very articulate, and in his heyday, he was the best.”

When he arrived in Richmond, he immediately pushed for the removal of a white judge and demanded that the city’s public-defender office be controlled by blacks. He used local events to speak his mind on racism and didn’t mince words to get his message across. During a 1971 Black History Month speech at George Wythe High School, he called whites “honkies” and “devils.”

In the mid-1970s, El-Amin converted to Islam, changed his name and moved to Chicago, where he briefly worked for the Nation of Islam. A few years later, he returned to Richmond to continue what he called his fight against white supremacy. Others said he was mostly fighting whites.

In the 1980s and 1990s, he worked as a criminal-defense lawyer. In 1998, he ran for City Council and narrowly beat incumbent James L. Banks Jr. for the 6th District seat. El-Amin used the seat to further his cause — and ruffle feathers.

Brag Bolling, commander of the Virginia chapter of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, often disagreed with El-Amin. “Sa’ad El-Amin is the type of person who sees racism in every corner,” he said.

In 1999, El-Amin demanded that a portrait of Robert E. Lee, held in something close to reverence by Virginians for generations, be removed from a public walkway in Richmond. It came down.

The following year, El-Amin targeted Monument Avenue, a historic street in Richmond marked by statuary of Confederate war heroes. He objected to the city’s paying for the statues’ upkeep and wanted the policy changed.

“We have to dismantle this whole Confederate infrastructure because it glorifies slavery,” El-Amin said in a telephone interview in 2000. The idea went nowhere.

El-Amin worked as head of security at the Fahrenheit Club, a bar in the Shockhoe Bottom section of town. “At the time, the club was having trouble with the [Alcohol Beverage Control] Board, and we needed someone who had the common sense to observe and oversee things,” said Ted Kastanos, the club’s general manager before it closed earlier this year.

Meanwhile, his personal life was falling apart. In 1990, he divorced his second wife, Carolyn Adams. He later spent some time in jail for not paying child support or alimony. That divorce changed him, El-Amin’s friends said.

“The judge in that case put the screws on him, and it was a very evil judgment,” said David P. Baugh, a criminal-defense lawyer who often worked with El-Amin.

A few years later, El-Amin married Beverly D. Crawford, a Richmond lawyer. They opened a law firm, which became the focus of a federal investigation that led to their downfall.

Last year, the Virginia Bar Association began its proceedings to disbar El-Amin for ethics violations. He surrendered his license rather than face 47 charges of misconduct. He admitted that the misconduct charges were true, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“You have to work really hard to have your license revoked, and it takes a lot for the Virginia Bar Association to revoke it,” Mr. Morchower, 63, said.

In February, a grand jury indicted El-Amin and Crawford on 16 counts each of cheating the Internal Revenue Service and one count to defraud one of their clients. The indictment said the couple owed the IRS more than $700,000 in back taxes. Each faced up to 70 years in prison.

Crawford, 48, pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiracy to defraud the government. Prosecutors are likely to recommend 12 months of home confinement.

“Sa’ad is an enigma,” council member Manoli Loupassi said. “He never discussed his personal problems. He was always very cordial and polite.”

For months, El-Amin fought the charges against him, but on July 1, he resigned from the council and several hours later pleaded guilty to fraud. The other charges were dropped as part of a plea agreement.

“I don’t see him as any different than the rest of them,” said Herbert Massenburg, manager of Dave’s Barber Shop, located in the heart of what was El-Amin’s district. “He just got on the [bad] list of the judge.”

Brag Bolling of the Sons of Confederate Veterans says Richmond is better off with El-Amin out of public life. “He did a lot of damage to racial relations here,” he said. “This is God’s vengeance. I have no sympathy for him at all — his family yes but not him.”

El-Amin could not be reached for comment. He has said he would not comment until after his sentencing.

On Thursday, FBI agents arrested another Richmond City Council member, Gwen C. Hedgepeth, on charges of accepting a $2,000 bribe in exchange for her vote on a political appointment.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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