The chief counsel of Senate Ethics Committee should be forced to testify about financial disclosure reports at a public corruption trial, Justice Department prosecutors said this week in response to the House of Representative general counsel’s challenge of a DOJ subpoena.
Justice Department prosecutors said in court papers that John Sassaman’s testimony is not protected by the speech or debate clause, which blocks testimony about legislative acts. Earlier this month, lawyers for Sassaman filed court papers in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking to quash the government subpoena.
DOJ Public Integrity Section prosecutors, who want Sassaman to testify at the trial of Fraser Verrusio, said they do not intend to question Sassaman about any “acts, decisions or statements” that he made. Click here for the DOJ response to the motion to quash the subpoena.
Verrusio is charged with, among other things, making a false statement on his 2003 House financial disclosure form when he allegedly failed to disclose the nature, value and source of gifts he received from lobbyists he had business before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Verrusio was the policy director for the committee.
The government wants from Sassaman what DOJ calls background testimony, including testimony about a financial disclosure statement that makes up one count against Verrusio. Also, prosecutors want Sassaman to testify about use the financial disclosure reports in the public domain -- for instance, the fact that the press and watchdog groups publicize information from financial disclosure reports.
“Because such testimony would not disclose any legislative acts, Sassaman’s Speech or Debate Clause assertion must fail,” Public Integrity Section trial attorney Peter Sprung said in court papers filed June 24.
The House General Counsel’s Office has refused to volunteer a congressional staff member to testify at Verrusio’s trial. DOJ prosecutors initially turned to Kent Cooper, a former Federal Elections Commission official and former executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.
Verrusio’s lawyers in January challenged Cooper as witness, calling his proposed testimony prejudicial and irrelevant. Judge Richard Roberts heard argument on the dispute in March.
At the hearing, Roberts said it would not be inappropriate for an expert to testify about financial disclosure forms, since it is not the “kind of form that’s so plain that an ordinary juror would be able to appreciate” all of its meanings.
The court did not immediately rule whether Cooper would be allowed to testify. At some point after the hearing, Cooper told the government he would no longer be able to testify.