By RICHARD MEEHAN
The Cool Justice Report
March 12, 2010
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report, http://cooljustice.blogspot.com
What strategies lurk beneath the surface of the Shelton, Ct federal corruption case?
The curious trial of Shelton developer James Botti continues in New Haven federal court.
Botti is charged with bribery, conspiracy and mail fraud. At the center of the government's case is the claim that Botti gave gifts to public officials in Shelton, principally Mayor Mark Lauretti.
Veteran New Haven veteran trial attorney Willie Dow represents Botti. Dow successfully brokered a plea deal for John Rowland, helping the former governor avoid a potentially long prison sentence. In this case he represents the alleged gift giver, not the recipient.
Bribery, like ballroom dancing, requires two people. You can't bribe yourself.
Essentially, the crime requires proof that something of value was given in exchange for consideration by the recipient. In the law we refer to that exchange as a quid pro quo, Latin for "this for that."
Merely providing a gift to a public official with nothing expected in return doesn't rise to the level of a federal bribe. If it did then every president who ever accepted a replica football jersey from the Super Bowl winners would be serving time in the federal pokey.
Most governmental entities have ethics rules. In Connecticut the need for clear-cut ethical guidelines on gifts became apparent after the Joe Ganim case in 2003.
Mayors and governors, like state representatives and senators, are frequently the object of the largesse by lobbyists. The Ganim case was defended on the theory that there was no brightline guidance on when a politician can accept a gratuity. The jury in that case set the bar, however; rejecting the argument that the gifts given to Bridgeport's mayor represented general gratuities not tied to specific projects. (Full disclosure: I was Joe Ganim's lead counsel.)
That case followed the Department of Justice playbook for prosecuting politicians.
Sent to jail before Ganim was former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci, now a radio talk show host.
The feds began each case by "flipping" potential witnesses close to the mayors. In the typical investigation evidence is compiled on these possible "co-conspirators." With enough evidence to indict, the target is then persuaded ("flipped" as we say in the law business) to trade cooperation for leniency. Add a few thousand wiretapped conversations, a little "quid pro quo" and "voila!" you have a bribery indictment of a public official.
On the surface, the Botti case doesn't seem to fit the corruption playbook. This is a fact not lost on lawyer Dow.
Now, every trial lawyer loves a good theme in a case -- something to resonate with the jurors as the trial progresses. For Johnny Cochran and O.J. it was, "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit!"
Dow's mantra is words to the effect of, "Do you see Mark Lauretti sitting in this courtroom?"
As mantras go, that one gets the point across. If this is truly public corruption, why hasn't the mayor been charged?
It's a question that jurors will have to ponder. Does it rise to the level of a defense for Jim Botti? That one will have to be answered by the verdict.
The real question is, does it make sense?
What does the government gain by trying Botti without formally charging Lauretti? Why expose their evidence in a potential future corruption indictment of the public official? If they have provable evidence of corruption in Shelton, why let a cagey trial lawyer like Willie Dow create credibility issues with witnesses who may later form the core of that prosecution?
With Cianci, Ganim and Rowland, the government offered leniency to the gift givers in exchange for the bigger prize: the public official. They followed the playbook and won. It remains to be seen if this different approach carries the day.
Or, underneath it all, is this really a different approach. Let's see how far the trial progresses.
Bridgeport, CT attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counsel for former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim's corruption trial. Meehan has been certified as a criminal trial specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy since 1994 and serves on the organization's Board of Examiners. He is a Charter Fellow, Litigation Counsel of America -- Trial Lawyer Honorary Society. Meehan has also obtained multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in complex medical and dental malpractice and personal injury litigation. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on TruTv. His column also appears in the Sunday Norwich, CT Bulletin. Website, www.meehanlaw.com