A lawyer for a former congressional staffer convicted on corruption charges in the Jack Abramoff scandal tried today to convince the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to overturn the verdict.
Fraser Verrusio, former policy director for the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, was charged with accepting a free trip to New York City organized by lobbyists with the understanding he would help the lobbyists' client with legislation. Verrusio, who denied wrongdoing, was convicted at trial in 2011.
Verrusio's appeal is a remnant of the U.S. Department of Justice's broad corruption probe surrounding disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Verrusio claimed the government failed to prove its case. He is also challenging a constitutional protection that shields members of Congress and their staff from providing information to prosecutors and defense lawyers about legislative activities. Verrusio, in his case, sought trial testimony from a former Hill staffer.
Verrusio didn't deny taking the all-expenses-paid trip in 2003, which included a World Series game, dinner at a steakhouse and a visit to a strip club. He denied going on the trip with the understanding he would later perform "official acts" to help the lobbyist's client, construction equipment rental company United Rentals Inc., insert favorable language in a federal highway bill.
The three-judge D.C. Circuit panel pressed lawyers on both sides to explain what would qualify as an "official act" under the federal law dealing with illegal gifts—giving information or advice versus actively working to insert amendments into legislation, for instance. Verrusio claimed that, at most, he shared information with the lobbyists on the legislative process. The government maintained Verrusio took a more direct role in trying to help United Rentals with the highway bill.
Verrusio also challenged the trial judge's decision to quash his subpoena for testimony from another former congressional staffer, Vivian Moeglein, who invoked the constitutional protection afforded Congress from certain subpoenas and warrants known as the "speech-or-debate" clause.
On appeal, Verrusio argued the trial judge, U.S. District Chief Judge Richard Roberts, should have weighed Verrusio's constitutional right to put on a defense with the staffer's right to invoke the legislative shield. Once the judge tossed the subpoena, Verrusio said the case should have been dismissed because he was denied access to "material evidence."
D.C. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh asked Verrusio's lawyer, Richard Sobiecki of Baker Botts, if there was precedent supporting a balancing test. Kavanaugh said his understanding was the case law assumed the protection was "absolute."
Sobiecki said there hadn't been another case presenting a situation such as Verrusio's but there were previous decisions that suggested the speech or debate clause could apply differently in criminal and civil litigation.
Kavanaugh later asked Kirby Heller, an appellate lawyer in the U.S. Department of Justice's Criminal Division, if she understood the protection to be absolute. Heller replied that she did.
Chief Judge Merrick Garland asked why Moeglein's testimony about what happened after the trip was "material evidence," since she couldn't speak to what happened on the trip. Sobiecki said her testimony would rebut references prosecutors made to things Verrusio did after the trip as evidence of an agreement.
Judge Judith Rogers also heard the case. The court sat this morning at Georgetown University Law Center, marking the first time the D.C. Circuit held arguments at a local law school.