HOUSTON (CN) – Former Texas Congressman Steve Stockman drives a van, lives in a small house and loves fast food, his defense attorney said Tuesday, portraying Stockman as an absent-minded everyman who did not defraud charities of $1.2 million to fund his campaigns as prosecutors claim.
Stockman, 61, had nearly a year to prepare for the trial that started Tuesday, and to go over the more than 100,000 pages of discovery the government has amassed for its case against him, compiled in 11 thick binders that were neatly stacked behind the prosecutors’ table.
“You are going to see a polished presentation from the government that could sell ice to Eskimos, the culmination of a four-year multimillion dollar investigation. You paid for it, but you don’t have to buy it,” Stockman’s defense attorney Sean Buckley told the jury during opening statements.
A federal grand jury returned a 28-count superseding indictment in March 2017 charging Stockman and his former congressional aide, Jason Posey, with fraudulently soliciting $1.2 million in charitable donations and diverting it to pay their personal expenses and finance Stockman’s campaigns.
Stockman faces charges of mail and wire fraud, conspiracy, making false statements to the Federal Election Commission, money laundering and filing a false tax return. If convicted, he could be sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Stockman, a Republican, represented Texas’ 9th Congressional District from 1995 to 1997 and its 36th Congressional District from 2013 to 2015. Both are part of Greater Houston.
Federal prosecutor Robert Heberle kicked off the trial at the Houston federal courthouse before 30 people in the gallery.
He said Stockman, who has a bachelor’s degree in accounting, opened more than 40 bank and credit card accounts in the name of charities he started that existed solely on paper, whose offices were mailboxes and whose boards, composed of Stockman’s family and friends, never held any meetings.
“There’s an old saying: Follow the money. You will be able to follow every dollar donated to his charitable foundations,” Heberle said.
Heberle said the government obtained incriminating text messages, emails and bank records from Posey and another Stockman congressional aide, Thomas Dodd. Both Posey and Dodd are set to testify against Stockman.
The government’s case against Stockman centers on two donors it says he defrauded: The Ed Uihlein Family Foundation, a charity that donates millions of dollars to nonprofits that back conservative Republican politicians, and a Baltimore investment manager.
Prosecutors say Life Without Limits is a Las-Vegas based nonprofit formed to help people recover from traumatic events. They claim Stockman had no control over the nonprofit, but he opened several bank accounts with the name Stephen E. Stockman dba Life Without Limits.
Posey admitted in his plea agreement that he helped solicit $350,000 from the Ed Uihlein Family Foundation, which is run by Chicago businessman Richard Uihlein, and said Stockman lied that the money would be spent to renovate the “Freedom House,” a townhouse in Washington, D.C. that would be a meeting place and dorm for young Republicans.
“Within a year Stockman spent all the money, but he spent none of it on the Freedom House. He spent it to enrich himself and to fund his campaign,” said Heberle, who works in the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Unit in Washington, D.C.
Heberle, reading quickly from his notes, his head nodding in rhythm with his words, told the jury that Stockman also bilked Stanford Z. Rothschild Jr., a Baltimore investment manager who died in February 2017 at age 91, of $450,000 in donations in 2010 and 2011.
Stockman’s indictment alleges that he and Dodd convinced Rothschild to donate the money from his charitable organizations to Stockman’s nonprofit The Ross Center, incorporated as a drug-treatment center, and claimed it would be used for voter-education campaigns.
Heberle said in his opening statement that $98,000 of Rothschild’s donations went to Dodd’s personal expenses, while Stockman used the money for medical care, dry cleaning, tanning salon treatments, trips to Disneyland and New Orleans and a hot-air balloon ride.
Heberle also said Stockman devised the scam to get around federal election laws that, at the time, limited individual donations to $2,600 per election and banned political campaigns from receiving money from charities.
Buckley, Stockman’s defense attorney, told the jury the government will present a sophisticated and polished case against his client, but it will not be able to prove its main contention: that Stockman lied to Rothschild and Uihlein to steal their money.
“You are going to learn that Stockman is a bright guy, in some sense a political visionary,” Buckley said. “But he is also absent-minded and disorganized . . . He lives in a small, modest home, drives a van, eats at Taco Bell and McDonald’s, probably more than he should. This is not a case about fur coats and Rolexes.”
Buckley said that during Stockman’s tenure in Congress, he was seen as an outsider and considered “riffraff” by more moderate Republicans who did not endorse his extreme conservative views and conspiracy theories.
Stockman wrote an article for Guns & Ammo magazine in 1995 in which he claimed that President Bill Clinton’s administration had staged the February 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian Christian fundamentalist compound in Waco to justify banning assault weapons.
“Stockman has been homeless. He lived in a Fort Worth city park for six months, he ran a political campaign out of a motorcycle shop. While D.C. insiders were eating steak dinners and drinking expensive bottles of wine, he was eating by himself at McDonald’s,” Buckley said.
The trial before U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal, chief judge of the Southern District of Texas, is expected to go on for several weeks.