WASHINGTON (CN) - Leaning on precedent from former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s vacated corruption conviction, a former congressional staffer fought Wednesday at the D.C. Circuit to get a new trial.
Fraser Verrusio, who once served as a policy director for the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, served one day in jail for conspiracy, receiving an illegal gratuity - an all-expenses-paid trip to the first game of the World Series in 2003 - and lying about it.
In addition to his hotel and dinner during the trip, lobbyists associated with the now-disgraced Jack Abramoff paid for Verrusio to get a souvenir jersey and visit a strip club.
But in arguments Wednesday before the D.C. Circuit, Baker Botts attorney Richard Sobiecki argued that the Supreme Court's ruling in McDonnell v. United States "redrew the line" five years after Verrusio’s conviction on what constitutes an "official act."
"His job was to meet with lobbyists,” Sobieki said of Verrusio. “His job was to go to dinner.”
To uphold Verrusio’s convictions, the government must show that the trip to New York personally benefitted Verrusio, unrelated to his official duties.
Back in 2003, the lobbyists who sent Verrusio to the World Series were working for United Rentals. The company had a number of legislative priorities before Congress at the time, including proposed language in a highway bill that would have encouraged the rental of construction equipment over purchasing and increased the required level of liability insurance for the construction-equipment-rental industry.
Verrusio backed these failed amendments at the company's request, and he also failed to disclose his $1,259.77 trip sponsored by United Rentals full.
Department of Justice attorney Andrew Laing argued Wednesday before a three-judge panel that Verrusio’s conviction meets the standard for official acts that otherwise failed to snare former Governor McDonnell.
"That conduct was criminal at the time and it remains criminal," Laing said.
The D.C. Circuit already affirmed Verrusio's conviction in 2014, but the 2016 McDonnell reversal cleared the way for a new hearing.
Reflecting on his client's prior efforts to vacate his sentence, Sobiecki noted Wednesday: "This court didn't have the benefit of McDonnell."
"We want our day in court on the merits," Sobiecki added.
Attorney Laing cautioned, however, that Verrusio cannot succeed on the merits.
"The burden on the defendant here is extremely high," he said.
In addition to insisting that Verrusio’s jury received and followed proper instructions, Laing suggested that Verrusio knew his trip would not pass muster with ethics officials, and should have been reported.
"All of those considerations weigh heavily in favor of the government here," Laing said.
The parties appeared before U.S. Circuit Judges Sri Srinivasan, Robert Wilkins and Laurence Silberman. The judges did not say when they would issue a ruling, but noted they would take the case under advisement.
In June 2016, a unanimous Supreme Court wiped former Gov. McDonnell's bribery convictions for taking $175,000 from donors in gifts and loans for his family.
McDonnell insisted he took no official action on behalf of the donors other than arranging meetings.
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