Kenneth W. Watford says he is here because of an injustice.
Sitting on the other side of the sloppily caulked double Plexiglas window, his wide face and short cropped hair flecked with gray leaning into a flat microphone and speaker affixed to the wall, he says he resides at the Baltimore City Correctional Center because of a series of bad acts by a judge who sent him to jail instead of releasing him on his own recognizance.
“My lawyer was completely blindsided,” Watford’s tenor voice says through the old-school phone receiver on my side of the divide. “You can see it on the transcript. He was saying he had no time to prepare.”
Of the underlying charges involving fraud, identity theft, a semi-automatic pistol, and several expensive cars, Watford says he is innocent. The whole thing—the arrest, the search of his house by federal agents, the criminal complaint in federal court—stems from a misunderstanding about his business dealings and, indeed, about the way business works.
So important are the fine points of business law to Watford’s defense, in fact, that he has petitioned the court to allow him to hire a corporate law expert. “The defendant is of the opinion that his defense of this case rests in the area of corporate law and undersigned counsel does not have sufficient expertise in this area of law to properly defend him,” reads a recent motion from Watford’s court-appointed criminal defense attorney, Marc Hall.
And the gun was his nephew’s, Watford says: “He signed an affidavit.” He can explain everything.
Always keen for a good wrongly accused story, I researched Watford’s explanations as far as I could. What I found surprised even the legal experts I consulted—but not necessarily for the reasons Watford might expect.
From what I could unearth, Watford’s business dealings include a tiny North Carolina grocery store, a brace of small electronic repair shops (one of which Watford apparently operated under the name Warford), a corporation that he alleges paid him six figures during a time when he was filing repeated bankruptcy petitions, and a technology-business-turned-interstate-transport company that, for a moment at least, may have had a piece of a $1.5 million Baltimore City contract.
Watford’s identity as a businessman and the status that confers on him is integral to his narrative. In America, business owners are revered as job creators while others are held in lower regard. And the U.S. confers awesome rights to businesses, beginning with limited liability and tax advantages and extending up to and including a form of constitutional personhood that practically eclipses that of flesh-and-blood humans. Businesses are immortal legal alter egos that, unlike mere people, can give unlimited funds to political campaigns. They can conceal one’s personal identity or magnify it; they can borrow money and discharge the debts in bankruptcy—and that’s all regardless of whether they turn any profit. The status and privilege a corporate charter confers is valuable and, like anything of value, is subject to theft and abuse.
The question of Watford’s guilt or innocence would seem to turn on the intersection of corporate personhood and personal identity—a fragile and malleable thing that, also, is increasingly vulnerable to hijack by digital thieves.
Whether Watford is the perpetrator of such thievery or a victim is the central question for his upcoming trial, currently scheduled for Dec. 2.
Watford first called me from the jail a half mile from City Paper’s downtown office on July 7. His story was convoluted to the point of incoherence, but breaks down like this:
Watford’s business partner (who he knew only as Tsedale Zewdie) is the reason he was caught with this stolen car to be used in his limousine service.
That man made a deal with Watford such that Watford would lend the name of one of his companies—Annie M’s Grocery—to Zewdie’s credit, and supply him with a commercial-vehicle insurance policy, in order to facilitate Zewdie’s business plan, which was to open his own bus or limousine company. “I put him on my company,” Watford said. “I made him a director.”
Watford said prosecutors won’t allow the record of this contract—the record that supposedly proves that Watford was only acting as a kind of co-signer on an automobile insurance policy for the person who really stole the identity of an innocent person—to be entered in his defense. (I tried to reach Zewdie, who the feds identify as a woman, at a listed number in Milwaukee, without success. Perhaps coincidentally, someone by that name collected nearly $11,000 on the payroll of the University of Maryland in 2008.)
Police raided Watford’s house without a proper warrant, Watford said. “And they sell us to this jail.”
Even while he was on the phone on that first call, I could see in the online file of state criminal court records that this was not Watford’s first rodeo.
Arrested at various times and charged with passing bad checks, theft, grand theft, and identity theft, including forgery and counterfeiting of private documents, Watford was convicted of grand theft and received a five-year sentence, with all but about six months suspended, in 2005. He received three years’ probation and was ordered to repay CitiFinancial $5,000.
In total, before the current charges, Watford was charged with document forgery and theft relating to the same in Maryland on no less than three occasions between 2005 and 2012.