John Tom kept waiting for a smoking gun. A 63-year-old real estate agent and Army veteran, Tom had been sitting in a federal jury box in Alexandria, Va., for more than two months, listening to prosecutors talk about what they said was a vast, multimillion-dollar conspiracy between executives at America Online Inc. and officials at PurchasePro.com Inc., a Las Vegas software firm. Tom trusted the government. He came to court every day expecting the prosecution to be fair and to uphold justice — an expectation that went all the way back to his junior high school civics class. But as prosecutors drew to the end of their case, he felt like he’d seen only what he calls “tidbits” of proof. “When the prosecution rested, I was astounded; I was still waiting for the other shoe to drop,” he says. “We were all waiting for something drastic to fall into our laps, and it never happened.”
On Tuesday, February 6, 2007 — in a dramatic repudiation of the government’s much publicized five-year investigation into accounting practices at AOL and PurchasePro — Tom and his fellow jurors acquitted all three of the defendants whose cases they’d heard: former AOL executives Kent Wakeford and John Tuli and former PurchasePro senior vice president Christopher Benyo. Prosecutors had called 37 witnesses in their attempt to prove that the three men had helped their companies improperly inflate revenues through secret side deals and backdated contracts. The trial lasted for more than three months, an unofficial record in the Eastern District of Virginia. And yet jurors took only three days to reach not guilty verdicts on all counts. It was a shocking outcome in a district known for its conservative bent and low acquittal rate. “I was a prosecutor in that district for eight years, and I don’t think anyone can remember a clear defense sweep,” says Mark Hulkower, a partner at Washington, D.C.’s Steptoe & Johnson who was lead counsel for Tuli. “People [we knew] had the reaction of shock when, after a four-month trial, we found them not guilty,” remembers juror Catherine Payne.
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