Nearly nine years ago, Fraser Verrusio, then a policy director in the House of Representatives, accepted an all-expenses paid trip to the first game of the World Series. He's now fighting to convince a federal appeals court in Washington to erase his conviction on public corruption charges stemming from that trip.
A jury in Washington's federal trial court convicted Verrusio in February 2011 on charges that included acceptance of an illegal gratuity and failing to include gift information on financial disclosure reports. He was sentenced that year to spend the afternoon in a cell in the courthouse.
Verrusio's lawyers—including A.J. Kramer, the federal public defender in Washington, and a team from Baker Botts—filed their opening brief on October 5 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The case is one of two cases pending in the D.C. Circuit with ties to Washington's lobbying scandal and the exploits of Jack Abramoff.
The defense lawyers argue, among other things, that the trial judge, Richard Roberts, "greatly expanded" the scope of the federal anti-gratuities statute. The attorneys contend the U.S. Justice Department didn't prove that Verrusio used his official position to influence government decision-making.
"Here, the government proved, at most, that Mr. Verrusio shared publicly available information with lobbyists," Richard Sobiecki of Baker Botts wrote in the D.C. Circuit brief. "The sharing of information is not an official act because it does not implicate a public official using his position to influence decision-making."
Verrusio's lawyers also said that prosecutors failed to connect any gift to a specific official act. When Verrusio received the New York trip, his lawyers said, he never made any indication then that he would take any action to advance private interests on Capitol Hill.
Prosecutors alleged the purpose of the trip to New York for the World Series game—the Yankees were playing the Florida Marlins that year—was to influence Verrusio to advance the legislative interests of the company United Rentals, Inc. The trip included commercial air travel and the use of a chauffeured Cadillac Escalade for transportation in New York.
The government said Verrusio was required to report the receipt of gifts valued at more than $285. Verrusio didn't include the New York trip on a financial disclosure form. An FBI official last year said Verrusio's conduct "cuts against thousands of government workers who live their lives by the ethical code they pledged to uphold."
Verrusio's lawyers also argue that the trial judge unfairly blocked a key witness from testifying at the trial. Verrusio sought, via subpoena, the testimony of Vivian Curry, the legislative director for John Boozman, a former member of the House Transportation Committee who is now a Republican senator from Arkansas.
Curry, according to Verrusio's lawyers, would have testified "she had no knowledge of Mr. Verrusio ever intending to take any action on behalf of United Rentals." Roberts, the judge, rejected the defense subpoena—at Curry's request—on the basis that it would have compelled information that is protected by the constitution's speech-or-debate clause.
Verrusio's defense attorneys told the D.C. Circuit that the clause accords limited, not absolute, protection to the legislative process from outside intrusion. The lawyers want the appeals court to find that Verrusio's constitutional rights trump any privilege attached to Curry's would-be testimony.
"The government should not be allowed to have it both ways," Sobiecki said in court papers. "It must either choose to pursue a criminal conviction and allow a defendant to exercise his rights, or it must not pursue a conviction and enjoy its evidentiary privileges."
Justice Department lawyer Michael Rotker of the Criminal Division's appellate section and assistant U.S. attorney Elizabeth Trosman were not immediately reached for comment this afternoon. The government's brief is due on October 31. The D.C. Circuit hasn't yet scheduled oral argument.
In addition to the afternoon spent in jail in Washington, Verrusio is serving two years of supervised release. His lawyers recently lost their effort to convince the trial judge to end the release period early before its termination.
Prosecutors in DOJ's Public Integrity Section, including trial attorney David Harbach II, were opposed to the early termination of the release period.
"Verrusio has not identified any new circumstances, extraordinary behavior, or unduly burdensome consequences stemming from his supervised release that warrant early termination," Harbach said in a court filing. "Compliance with conditions of release is what is expected of all criminal defendants and does not alone justify termination of supervised release."