During closing arguments today in the Dominic Verdi corruption case, U.S. District Court Judge Berle M. Schiller was keeping a strict stopwatch on a verbose prosecutor.
The judge had previously warned Assistant U.S. Attorney Denise Wolf last week that "You don't know how to control your time."
But Wolf apparently didn't learn her lesson. She continued to run over time limits imposed by the judge, who was clearly losing patience with her. So Judge Schiller took to loudly warning Wolf when her time was about to run out.
"Wind up," the judge warned Wolf when she was five minutes away from what should have ben the end of her 45-minute closing argument. "One minute or less," the judge warned when Wolf was nearing the end of the time allotted for her 10-minute rebuttal.
The judge's strict approach clearly flustered the disorganized prosecutor. But what may be more damaging to the government's case was the judge's editorial comments about missing prosecution witnesses delivered while Wolf was trying to wind up her all-too-lengthy cross-examination of the defendant. What the jury makes of this not-ready-for-prime-time act is yet to be determined.
Verdi, the former deputy commissioner of the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections, has admitted on the witness stand that he had a conflict of interest back in 2006 when he decided to invest $20,000 in a beer distributorship. The now-defunct Chappy's Beer, Butts & Bets went out of business in 2010.
The problem was that in his job as deputy L&I Commissioner, Verdi was in charge of regulating bars and nightclubs who were potential customers of Chappy's. As the leader of the city's Nuisance Task Force, Verdi frequently led raids on many establishments around town that were also either customers of Chappy's, or potential customers.
On top of having a conflict of interest, Verdi admitted that lied when he was asked about Chappy's in 2007 by an investigator from the city's Inspector General's office. But when the FBI came calling in 2010, Verdi came clean, talking to the FBI five times without a lawyer.
But Verdi is not on trial for a conflict of interest, or lying about it to authorities. He's been charged with criminal acts, namely extortion, bribery, and theft of honest services. Therein lies the problem for Assistant U.S. Attorney Wolf, who, at too many junctures in this trial, has sounded like a graduate student advancing a theory in a law class, rather than a prosecutor proving a case beyond a reasonable doubt.
While Wolf was winding up her cross-examination of Verdi this morning, a cross the judge had already said last week was going on too long, Wolf asserted that the defendant had been telling bar and nightclub owners all over town to buy their beer at Chappy's.
"I told no one to buy beer at Chappy's," Verdi loudly told the prosecutor.
The other problem for the prosecution is that four of the main witnesses against Verdi are criminals. They include a husband-and-wife team of former nightclub owners who have pleaded guilty to tax and welfare fraud, and owed the government as much as $1 million. A former strip club manager who was convicted of third-degree murder in the beating death of a drunken patron. And a former L&I inspector who got arrested for using his official position to extort an elderly neighbor.
Susan Callueng, one of the night club owners who got jammed up on a tax and welfare fraud rap, has previously told the jury that while she was writing out checks to Verdi for missing club licenses, she was also handing him envelopes stuffed with $1,000 in cash.
But while Verdi was on the witness stand, he told Wolf that Callueng was a stranger to him.
"I never spoke to that lady," Verdi said. The first time I ever laid eyes on her, Verdi said, was last week, when she walked into court as a government witness with immunity.
There was another witness to the alleged bribery of Verdi by Callueng. Mark Fresta, 37, of Cape Coral, Florida, pleaded guilty last year to one count of extortion in connection with Chappy's. He's another government witness awaiting sentencing. Supposedly, according to the government, when Susan Callueng was bribing Verdi, Fresta was right there, and was the middle man who arranged the meeting between them.
But today, when Wolf brought up Fresta to Verdi, the judge interrupted the prosecutor's rambling question to ask one of his one.
"We're hearing a lot about Mr. Fresta," the judge asked. "Is he coming in?"
"Your Honor," the prosecutor stammered, "Nobody has called him."
"He's your witness," the judge reminded the prosecutor.
Judge Schiller is a no-nonsense character who looks and acts like Ed Asner in robes. He's a big time bow hunter who keeps trophies mounted on the walls of his judge's chambers, such as local deer, caribou from Quebec, and even impala from South Africa.
As the trial wore on, the judge has made it clear that he doesn't think much of the prosecutor, or her case.
When Wolf switched to grilling Verdi on the intricacies of L&I permit procedures, the judge quickly tired of it, yelling, "Stop it, now move on."
Soon, Wolf was into another long line of questioning involving Gregory Quigley, a lawyer who was allegedly another co-owner of Chappy's.
Once again, the judge broke in.
"Quigley, is that another witness we're gonna see?" the judge asked.
Obviously not, since testimony in the case was over last week.
Quigley, another government witness, wasn't called to testify. Wolf tried to explain that away by saying the government had so many witnesses, they couldn't take up the court's time by bringing all of them in.
"Don't blame it on the court," the judge shot back.
Wolf was running up against her 45-minute time limit so she cut her argument short and finally sat down.
"Right on time," the judge cracked.
Next up was Susan Lin, Verdi's defense lawyer, who asked Verdi if he treated customers of Chappy's any different than bar and nightclub owners who didn't buy their beer and booze from Chappy's.
"I helped everybody, whether they were customers or not," Verdi said.
When Lin was done, Wolf stood up, obviously eager to ask Verdi more questions on re-cross examination.
"This better be one minute," the judge told her. "I'm not gonna be like little kids, back and forth."
When Wolf was finished, the judge seemed happy the case was finally moving along. Then, the judge implied that the jury might consider making quick work of the case.
"Maybe you'll get to have a verdict today," the judge told the jury. "I don't know; we'll see."
It was time for closing statements.
Wolf jumped up, ready to go at Verdi for another 45 minutes. She started by pointing a finger at the defense table and imploring the jury to hold this public official "accountable for corrupt conduct."
The time-challenged prosecutor then reviewed all of the details again about Verdi's conflict of interest, and the lies he told about it.
"It takes a certain kind of person to do that," she said.
It takes a certain kind of prosecutor to consistently mismanage her time, as well as overlook the judge's increasing irritation about it.
Wolf argued that Verdi was guilty of extorting bar owners, but he used a gentle approach.
"He didn't have to threaten them, all he had to do is ask," she said. And bar and nightclub owners were eager to stay on Verdi's good side by buying from Chappy's.
Verdi's acts of extortion, the prosecutor said, boiled down to, "Buy my beer."
She tried to soften the rough edges on some of her witnesses.
"They're convicted felons," she said of the husband-and-wife team of former nightclub owners. "They're creepy business people."
But, she said, "You don't have to like them, but you can believe them."
The problem for Wolf is that another government witness, Joseph Volpe, who wasn't under indictment, testified that he got the same kind of favors from Verdi, in the form of allegedly expedited permits, without having to hand Verdi envelopes stuffed with cash.
But Wolf didn't address that contradiction, perhaps because her time was running out. She switched to the legal definition of honest services fraud, saying that when Verdi was telling bar and nightclub owners about his beer distributorship, if they took him up on it was a quid-pro-quo.
Meaning in exchange for buying beer from Chappy's, Verdi was dispensing officials acts in the form of allegedly expedited permits.
Wolf sat down and it was time for Lin to argue on Verdi's behalf.
The defense lawyer started out by drawing a distinction between a conflict of interest, which is all about appearances, and criminal acts.
"This case is about bribery and extortion," she said. And whether Verdi "accepted a bribe or accepted a kickback."
Verdi, she said, never let his interest in Chappy's interfere with his work at L&I. He treated everybody the same.
Lin urged the jury to consider "the quality of the evidence" offered by the government.
She described the husband-and-wife team of former nightclub owners as "these two fraudsters" who were making more than $20,000 a week at their club, while they were pleading poverty to get free medical insurance.
She talked about the missing witnesses in the case such as Mario Fresta.
"The judge even asked where he was," the defense lawyer reminded the jury.
She talked about Kenneth Gassman, the government witness who was a former L&I inspector who pleaded guilty in 2010 to extorting his elderly neighbor. Gassman testified that he believed Verdi was going easy on bar and nightclub owners who were customers of Chappy's.
Six years have gone by, Lin said, and Gassman hasn't served a day in jail because the government was wiling to wait for Gassman to testify against Verdi. And John Pettit, Lin said, referring to the strip club owner who pleaded guilty to third degree murder, he was just here to testify "in exchange for a lighter sentence."
Lin talked about the complexities of dealing with L&I. The government has used dates on permits granted by Verdi to show quick turnarounds. But the defense has countered that the city's new computer system at L&I frequently had glitches when it came to times and dates, meaning they can't be trusted.
In the case of the husband-and-wife nightclub owners, the business they owned had a prior license, Lin said, meaning that instead of taking out new permits, Verdi was just issuing renewals. So there was no need for a lengthy review.
Then Lin, who was ahead of schedule, asked a big question.
"Where's the money trail," she said.
The lead FBI agent on this case is a CPA, Lin noted. If Dominic Verdi was getting rich at Chappy's, where are the bank deposits that show the money flowing into Verdi's coffers?
Where was the proof that Verdi was leading an "extravagant lifestyle" well beyond the salary of an L&I deputy commissioner?
In contrast to the government's creepy cast of characters on their witness list, Lin talked about the character witnesses who testified on Verdi's behalf.
They included a Philadelphia police captain and a retired Philadelphia police lieutenant. A current L&I inspector, and a realtor who hired Vedi after he left L&I. And a cousin of Verdi's, Father John DiOrio, who was also the pastor at Verdi's Catholic parish in South Philly.
These are all pillars of the community, Lin argued. And they all stood up for Dominic Verdi.
Remember, she told the jury, Dominic Verdi didn't have to take the witness stand. But he did because he's got nothing to hide.
She was down to her final argument, that the government had to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
She defined reasonable doubt as something that would make one pause or hesitate before making an important decision.
Surely, she told the jury, you have to pause or hesitate when considering whether you can trust the government's witness list of felons with suspect motives.
Lin was done. Since Wolf had only one minute for rebuttal, thanks to the judge, she told the jury that Verdi's character witnesses were biased, and didn't know the facts of this case.
Before she could go off in another rhetorical direction, the judge warned, "You have one minute."
Wolf asked the jury to convict Verdi on all the charges, and then she quickly sat down.
The judge dismissed the jury for the day, telling them when they return tomorrow at 9:30 a.m., he will instruct them for two hours on the legal intricacies of the charges against Verdi.
And then the case is theirs.