Ex-Congressional Staffer Nailed for Hidden Gifts

     (CN) - A former congressional staffer was properly convicted of taking strip-club visits, World Series tickets and other gifts from lobbyists working for Jack Abramoff's firm, the D.C. Circuit ruled.
     Fraser Verrusio, the former policy director of the U.S. House of Representatives' Transportation Committee, was convicted in 2011 of receiving illegal gifts from Abramoff's lobbying group.
     Abramoff, the disgraced former lobbyist with close ties to Republican leaders, served four years in prison for corrupting Congress and the executive branch, using bribes to promote his legislative agenda.
     United Rentals hired lobbyists working with Abramoff's group in 2003 to insert language in the federal highway bill that would incentivize state transportation departments to contract with builders that rented equipment as opposed to buy it. Other language that United Rentals wanted would require a high level of liability insurance, which few companies other than United Rentals have.
     The lobbyists contacted Verrusio believing that he would be helpful in advancing their agenda.
     To encourage his assistance, the lobbyists offered Verrusio a ticket to go with them to the first game of the 2003 World Series, which he accepted.
     Verrusio flew to New York, strategized on United Rentals' amendments over dinner and drinks, went to the game, ordered souvenir jerseys, visited a strip club, ate pizza, then finished the night at a hotel, before flying back to Washington the next day.
     United Rentals footed the entire bill, totaling $1,259.77 for Verrusio alone.
     In addition to not report the gift on the financial disclosure statement that he filed with the House Ethics Committee, Verrusio denied ever going on the trip when the FBI contacted him five years later in connection with its investigation into Abramoff.
     A jury ultimately convicted Verrusio and him sentenced to an afternoon in jail, and two years of supervised release.
     The D.C. Circuit upheld Verrusio's conviction Tuesday.
     "Verrusio contends that the district court should have dismissed Count Two because it omitted an essential element of the gratuities offense: the allegation of an 'official act,'" Judge Merrick Garland wrote for the three-judge panel.
     Verrusio claimed at trial that he did not report the gift because the trip served no official purpose. A gift is not considered a bribe if it is merely "given by reason of the donee's office."
     The indictment sufficiently supplied this element, citing Verrusios efforts to secure amendments to the federal highway bill favorable to United Rentals, according to the ruling.
     "The indictment certainly need not allege precisely how Verrusio contemplated influencing that language," Garland said (italics in original). "Would he do it by himself or ask someone else to do it? Would that someone else be Colonel Mustard or Professor Plum? With a candlestick or a rope, in the library or the study? Answering those questions is not required at the indictment stage."
     In addition, the testimony of involved lobbyists could readily have convinced a juror that "the World Series trip was given and received 'for or because of some particular official act' - that is, for influencing the language of the federal highway bill - and not merely 'by reason of [Verrusio's] office,'" especially given that Verrusio was well aware at the time he accepted the ticket what motivated United Rentals' generosity, the court found.