WASHINGTON -- A jury impaneled for the last trial in a lobbying scandal heard an unflattering portrait Wednesday of government business conducted on a booze-fueled junket, longtime friends turning on one another, and a congressional aide's transformation from potential witness to defendant.
Fraser Verrusio, a former policy director to Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska on the House Transportation Committee, is accused of illegally accepting an expenses-paid trip to the first game of the 2003 World Series and lying about it on a financial disclosure form.
Verrusio maintains he did nothing illegal and that Capitol Hill aides and lawmakers commonly accepted travel provided by corporate sponsors with business before Congress.
"Some of us may not like that fact," Verrusio attorney Glen Donath told jurors in opening arguments. "But like it or hate it, that was part of working the Hill."
Federal agents discovered the trip while investigating influence-peddling masterminded by Jack Abramoff, the Republican superlobbyist. That probe eventually led to charges against 21 lobbyists, federal officials and others.
Verrusio is the only person charged in the case who has not been convicted. Eighteen people, including Abramoff and former Republican Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, have pleaded guilty. Two others have tried to fight the charges in court only to be convicted by juries.
The cases have exposed dealings between federal officials, lobbyists and their clients that often happen behind closed doors.
"Let's be honest - not everything gets done in Washington because of the merits," said Todd Boulanger, a former Abramoff associate who got to know Verrusio when both were sent to Florida to examine ballots for George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential recount. Boulanger helped arrange the World Series trip and was the first witness to testify against his former friend.
The trip was funded by United Rentals, which had just hired Boulanger and other lobbyists to get amendments to a highway funding bill that would increase its business renting construction equipment. Along with Verrusio on the trip were Todd Ehrlich of United Rentals; James Hirini, another lobbyist hired by the company; and Trevor Blackann, who worked for the Senate committee that would handle the highway bill.
Prosecutor Rae Woods said the foursome lived the "high life" on the overnight trip to Manhattan, with roundtrip airfare, accommodations at a luxury hotel, dinner at Spark's steakhouse, and a chauffeured Cadillac Escalade to transport them to the game between the hometown Yankees and the Florida Marlins and then onto Privilege strip club later that night.
Woods said all the staffers' costs, also including drinks throughout the night, souvenir jerseys at the ballpark, lap dances and T-shirts from the club that said "Privilege" across the front, were paid for by the corporate host.
Woods said that over dinner Ehrlich and Hirini explained the changes they wanted in the highway bill, including one that would encourage states to rent rather than buy road construction equipment. "They spelled it out for him while he ate the steak they paid for," she said.
Hirini, who later went to work for Abramoff, and Blackann have both pleaded guilty to felony charges for their roles and are expected to testify against Verrusio.
Donath tried to convince jurors that all the witnesses against Verrusio were "bought and paid for" because of they have cooperation agreements with prosecutors that they hope will help them avoid lengthy jail sentences.
Donath said while Blackann returned to Washington and immediately began trying to get their amendments into the Senate version of the highway bill, Verrusio didn't take any action on the House side. Plus, he argued, the tickets were the worst - in Yankee Stadium's nosebleed section.
"This is a case about nothing," Donath said. "Fraser did nothing, was asked to do nothing and received next to nothing."
Donath said Verrusio assumed when FBI agents showed up at his house in December 2008 to question him in the Abramoff probe that they were there for another reason - to talk to him about Young's connections to an Alaska businessman convicted of bribing state lawmakers.
Donath said Verrusio had been meeting with an agent for over a year to provide background information on his boss but rejected persistent requests to wear a wire and secretly record their conversations.
The attorney said Verrusio told the agent, "I'm not a snitch."