Nearly a decade after getting caught in the dragnet of D.C.’s largest lobbying scandal, a former congressional staffer is still battling his corruption conviction in Washington’s federal courts.
Lawyers for Fraser Verrusio, a former policy director on the House Transportation Committee, will appear before a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Wednesday as part of a legal crusade to overturn his convictions. They’ve pinned their hopes on the Supreme Court’s 2016 McDonnell v. United States ruling, which overturned the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, and cast a long shadow in public corruption prosecutions.
Verrusio was convicted by a jury in 2011 of conspiring to accept, and of accepting an illegal gratuity, and of lying by failing to report the gift on his 2003 financial disclosure statement. The jury found he accepted a free trip to the first game of the 2003 World Series paid for by a lobbyist with an interest in a federal highway bill.
Verrusio was among nearly 20 individuals, including lobbyists and public officials, who pleaded guilty or were convicted in connection with the work of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his associates, according to a 2011 Justice Department press release that announced Verrusio’s convictions.
Verrusio’s attorneys—Baker Botts partner Richard Sobiecki and federal public defender A.J. Kramer—have argued Verrusio’s convictions should be tossed in light of the Supreme Court’s McDonnell decision, where the court clarified and narrowed what constitutes as an “official act” under federal anti-bribery law. Verrusio’s lawyers point to that ruling to argue the indictment brought against their client lacked an allegation of an “official act.”
Verrusio, who now works for consulting company TAG Holdings, has already served his sentence of an afternoon in jail and two years’ supervised release. But his attorneys argue he still suffers from those convictions because they’ve restrained his ability to bear arms and vote.
The focus of Wednesday’s hearing, however, will be an April 2017 ruling from Chief Judge Beryl Howell in the District of Columbia, denying Verrusio’s efforts to vacate his convictions. She found Verrusio did not meet the legal requirement to petition for habeas corpus because he was not “in custody” at the time he challenged his conviction.
Howell also rejected his bid for a coram nobis, a legal term describing a postconviction court order correcting an earlier error, because “the defendant cannot show that a favorable decision would redress his alleged injuries.” Howell said Verrusio “effectively” only challenged convictions for his first two counts. Even if he were successful in vacating those two counts he would still face the same adverse consequences stemming from a conviction on the third count related to his 2003 disclosure.
Lawyers from the Justice Department’s criminal division and its public integrity section are hoping to fend off Verrusio’s challenge. They contended in an April 2018 brief that he was neither “improperly convicted,” nor entitled to the “extraordinary remedy” of coram nobis.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment, other than pointing to the brief. Sobiecki also declined to comment.
The three-judge panel hearing Wednesday’s arguments will consist of Judges Sri Srinivasan and Robert Wilkins, and Senior Judge Laurence Silberman.