A second former high-level committee aide to Rep. Don Young was accused Friday of violating federal anti-corruption laws in the long-running Abramoff lobbying scandal.
A three-count indictment charged Fraser Verrusio, policy director for the House Transportation Committee when Young was chairman of the panel, with conspiracy, accepting an illegal gratuity in the form of an all-expense paid World Series weekend in New York, and failing to report the gift.
In return for the October 2003 trip to see the Yankees host the Florida Marlins in the Bronx, the Washington grand jury charged that Verrusio conspired with lobbyists, a Senate aide and an equipment rental company to change national policy in the committee's federal highway bill.
An amendment inserted in the Senate and then defended by Verrusio in the House would have encouraged public works agencies collecting federal highway money to rent rather than own equipment, the indictment charged. Rather than purchase their equipment, the amendment created incentives for agencies to rent from the leasing company, which wasn't named in the indictment.
Verrusio, 39, was one of Young's first hires when he took over as chairman of the Transportation Committee in 2001. According to the Congress-tracking Web site Legistorm, Verrusio started as director of outreach for the committee on Feb. 16, 2001, a position designed to mobilize constituent groups like contractors or truckers in support of bills. Verrusio was promoted to policy director in April 2002 at an annual salary of more than $130,000.
The other Young aide caught up in the Abramoff scandal, committee lawyer Mark Zachares, pleaded guilty in April 2007 to helping Abramoff and his associates get business and inside information from the committee in exchange for cash, gifts and job favors. His sentencing was postponed indefinitely while he cooperates with the ongoing federal investigation.
Zachares and Verrusio were supervised by Young's chief of staff on the transportation committee, Lloyd Jones, a former Republican state senator from Ketchikan married to another ex-state senator, Jan Faiks of Anchorage. Jones, Zachares and Verrusio had nearby offices in the Rayburn House Office Building.
A call to the Jones and Faiks home in Virginia wasn't returned. Young's office also declined to comment. A phone number listed for Verrusio on a 2008 lobbyist registration form belonged to someone else and he couldn't be reached.
Neither Young nor Jones have answered questions about the Abramoff scandal since Zachares' plea.
There has been no formal indication that Young himself in under investigation in the Abramoff scandal. But Young, who has reporting spending more than $1 million in legal defense fees from his campaign account, is under investigation in Alaska in connection with the wide-ranging FBI corruption probe centered on the defunct oil-field service company Veco Corp.
Young has denied wrongdoing but has never answered specific questions, even when he campaigned for re-election last year. Veco's chief executive, Bill Allen, told the FBI that Veco illegally paid for a Young fundraiser, and that a Veco vice president organized golf outings in which participants paid $100 each to Young as a "thank you" gratuity, according to documents made public during the trial of Sen. Ted Stevens. Allen indicated to the agents that he didn't consider the payments bribes -- "you can't 'buy' Young," the agents' notes quoted Allen as saying.
Under federal law, a gratuity to a public official is only illegal if it is tied to a specific act. A bill in Congress now would remove that restriction, making it illegal to privately pay someone for being a public official.
The equipment rental conspiracy alleged in the Verrusio indictment has already resulted in guilty pleas from the two Abramoff associates -- Todd Boulanger and James Hirni -- and the Senate aide, Trevor Blackann, who at the time worked for Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo.
Term limits forced Young to give up the Transportation Committee in 2006. Young took Jones and several other key staffers with him to the House Resources Committee, where he became ranking Republican member, but Verrusio stayed at Transportation until May 2007, according to Legistorm. Senate records show he then became a lobbyist for an engineering company.
According to the indictment, the highway bill was in committee in both the House and Senate when Boulanger and Hirni began pushing for amendments favorable to their client.
Hirni offered Verrusio the all-expense paid trip to New York on Oct. 17, 2003, the day before the World Series opened in Yankee Stadium. The lobbyists paid for his airfare from Washington to Queens, two days with a chauffeured, seven-passenger limousine, a night in a New York hotel, dinner at a steak joint and the baseball tickets. As they were leaving the Stadium, Verrusio asked Hirni to buy him a souvenir baseball jersey for about $130. The indictment didn't specify the team or player, but Verrusio got his souvenir.
After the game, the party finished up with drinks at a strip club paid for by Hirni. Verrusio's share for entertainment and booze at the club was $150. Altogether, his share of weekend's cost was about $1,300, the indictment charged, but it might as well have been priceless for anyone looking at Verrusio's annual disclosure the next year -- there was no mention of it.
Three days later, Hirni e-mailed Verrusio information about the amendments he wanted in the highway bill. By November, they had been inserted in the Senate version of the highway bill with Blackann's assistance. Over the next months, companies that sold equipment directly to agencies got wind of the measure and mounted a vigorous opposition. Verrusio helped fight off that effort, the indictment charged.
An official from the rental company boasted in an e-mail that he was confident his side would prevail, the indictment said.
"Our guys don't think it is going to be a problem," the official wrote. "We have a much stronger relationship and we are already in the bill, and soon to be in the house bill too."
In January 2004, Verrusio suggested the lobbyists use the "grassroots" techniques he practiced at the Transportation Committee before he became policy director: he told them to organize a letter-writing campaign to Congress by the owners and operators of local affiliates of the rental company.
Find Richard Mauer online at adn.com/contact/rmauer or call 257-4345.
By RICHARD MAUER