Gunman said councilman offered him cash not to oppose him

Friday, July 25, 2003

NEW YORK -- Hours before he gunned down Councilman James Davis, Othniel Askew told the FBI that Davis offered him $45,000 to give up a primary election challenge -- and threatened to hurt his family if he did not, law enforcement sources said Thursday.

Askew, in what investigators described as a rambling statement, also claimed Davis threatened to expose him as gay, the sources told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

A city council spokeswoman called the allegations "preposterous," and investigators said they have not corroborated Askew's claims.

But the claims underscore the complex, volatile relationship between the two men before their paths crossed one final, fatal time -- when Askew walked into city hall by Davis' side Wednesday, then shot him dead in the council chamber.

By Thursday, two starkly different portraits of Askew had emerged -- one as a Davis protege, another as a fierce political rival.

Askew showed up at Davis' offices in Brooklyn on Wednesday -- as he had several times in recent weeks -- and asked if they could go to city hall together. Davis agreed, and both men were waved past a metal detector when they arrived.

Inside, on a balcony overlooking the council chambers, Askew shot Davis several times in the torso, sparking chaos on the second floor of city hall. A police officer shot Askew seconds later. Askew and Davis died shortly thereafter.

Call to FBI

Hours before the shooting, Askew called the FBI and said Davis, a 41-year-old, first-term councilman, "had used language that Askew had interpreted as that Davis was threatening to hurt his family somehow," one law enforcement official said.

Besides the $45,000 payment, Askew claimed Davis had offered him $15,000 a year and a no-show staff job, and offered to sell him a building in Brooklyn for $1, law enforcement sources said.

The FBI has said only that a man identifying himself as Askew called its New York office to charge that Davis was harassing him over the upcoming primary election. They said the man made no threats of violence against Davis.

Askew had filed papers to run against Davis in the Democratic primary this fall, but he did not have the requisite signatures to enter the race.

City Councilman Kendall Stewart said Davis had apparently made a deal with Askew in which the aspiring politician agreed not to run.

Members of Davis' staff say the councilman considered himself a mentor to the 31-year-old Askew. They said there was no indication in the final weeks of Davis' life that there was bad blood between the two.

"James didn't hold a grudge," said Lupe Todd, a City Council spokeswoman.

Of Askew's claim to the FBI that Davis had threatened him, Todd said: "It sounds a bit preposterous." She declined to comment further.

Janet Minto, Davis' chief of staff, also declined to address the councilman's ties to Askew. "There is no explanation of this tragedy," she said in a statement.

In his campaign fliers, Askew identified himself as a devoted community member who had an accounting degree. He said he was an Air Force medical specialist honorably discharged as a sergeant in 2001. An Air Force spokeswoman confirmed he had served in the military, but could not provide other details.

In Askew's house in Brooklyn, investigators found Davis campaign posters that appeared to have been torn down, police sources said Thursday. They also found anti-depressant medication prescribed to Askew, the sources said.

Court records show Askew was charged with assault in 1996 and accused of beating his domestic partner with a hammer. Askew pleaded guilty to harassment and signed an order agreeing to stay away from the man.

David Sasser, who owns a gun dealership in Sneads Ferry, N.C., said Askew bought a $600 handgun from him in 2001. He said there was nothing unusual about the sale. "He had all the paperwork," Sasser said.

Also Thursday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg tightened security at City Hall, saying the only people allowed past security with guns would be on-duty law enforcement officials -- not off-duty or retired officers. Davis, a former police officer, was carrying a holstered gun Wednesday, but did not draw the weapon.

As Bloomberg returned to work about 7:30 a.m., he set his keys and newspapers on a conveyor belt and walked through a metal detector. Previously the mayor and council members were allowed to walk around the machine, sometimes with their guests.

Richard Burt, the officer who killed Askew with four bullets, was promoted to detective investigator at a ceremony in City Hall. He offered condolences to Davis' family and played down his own quick thinking.

"I don't consider myself a hero," said Burt, a nine-year police veteran. "I just did my job. I did what I was trained to do."

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Associated Press Writers Erin McClam and Tom Hays contributed to this story.

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