What’s expected to be the last trial related to the federal government’s long-running probe of disgraced ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff got under way Wednesday. But there was no mention of Abramoff.
Neither federal prosecutors nor defense attorneys raised Abramoff’s specter during opening arguments in the trial of former House aide Fraser Verrusio, who faces public corruption charges over his participation in a 2003 trip to the World Series in New York.
Federal prosecutors charged Verrusio in a 2009 indictment with accepting the World Series trip as an “illegal gratuity” from then-lobbyist Jim Hirni, who represented an equipment rental company with an interest in the highway reauthorization bill. Abramoff played no apparent role in the trip and is not named in the indictment.
Verrusio is also charged with making false statements for not disclosing the trip on his annual financial disclosure form for that year.
In her opening remarks, federal prosecutor Rae Woods looked to depict the 2003 trip as extravagant — pointing to the “fancy” hotel, steak house, limo service and souvenirs Verrusio allegedly received — and repeatedly telling jurors, “The defendant didn’t pay for any of it.”
Woods argued that lobbyists used the trip to instruct Verrusio about legislation they were seeking from the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, where Verrusio worked for then-Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska).
“They spelled it out for him while he ate the steak that they paid for,” Woods said, and later added, “And when the defendant got back to D.C., it was time for him to do his part.”
Defense attorney Joshua Berman argued, however, that Verrusio’s travel amounted to nothing more than a “legitimate, run of the mill, third-party trip.”
Berman focused his opening remarks on Trevor Blackann, a former aide to Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) who also attended the New York trip, as well as former “Team Abramoff” lobbyist Todd Boulanger, who was not there. Both Blackann and Boulanger have pleaded guilty to related charges stemming from the Abramoff investigation.
Berman argued that Blackann exaggerated about an otherwise legal trip to federal investigators in an attempt to protect his spouse, Laura Blackann, also a former Hill aide, from being prosecuted. Laura Blackann has never been charged in connection with the Abramoff investigation.
“This is a case about nothing,” Berman said.
Berman also revealed that FBI investigators had spoken with Verrusio a half dozen times over an 18-month period and had pressed him to wear a wire to record his then-boss, Young.
Berman said Verrusio agreed to provide background information to investigators but stated, “‘I’m not a snitch,’” when he declined to wear a recording device.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.