By Ralph Cipriano
A jury deliberated for just a couple of hours today before unanimously acquitting Dominic Verdi on all the political corruption charges against him.
Verdi, the former deputy commissioner of the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections, had been accused in a seven-count federal indictment of conspiracy under the Hobbs Act to commit extortion and honest services fraud. But the case had all kinds of problems, which the trial judge, Berle M. Schiller, pointed out to the jury.
Verdi's problems began in 2006 when he sunk $20,000 into Chappy's Beer, Butts & Bets, a beer distributorship that was out of business by 2010. Verdi complicated the problem when the city's Inspector General asked him about it in 2007, and he denied having any ownership interest in Chappy's.
So Verdi was guilty of a conflict of interest, and lying about it. Not exactly exemplary conduct, but ethical violations. The feds, however, overreached by charging Verdi with criminal acts -- conspiracy to commit extortion and honest services fraud -- but failing to prove any of it.
When the verdict was announced, Verdi sat there stunned while his wife started crying.
"The truth finally came out," Verdi said outside the courthouse. "After six and a half years of being harassed, after six and a half years of my family being harassed, after six and a half years of my friends being harassed."
"To all my friends and family, thank you for standing behind me the way you did," Verdi said. "And to all the people out there who didn't believe me, karma's a bitch."
A big problem with the federal case was that the feds presented the jury with no proof of a money trail leading to Verdi's bank account, a point stressed in her closing statement by Susan Lin, Verdi's court-appointed defense lawyer.
The government's other problem was a stable of cooperating witnesses that included a convicted murderer, a former L&I inspector who pleaded guilty to using his official position to extort his elderly neighbor, and a husband and wife team of former night club owners who pleaded guilty to tax and welfare fraud and owed the feds as much as $1 million in back taxes, fines and penalties.
How can you trust these people, Lin argued to the jury. Every one of those cooperating witnesses, she argued, met the definition of reasonable doubt.
On top of that mess, the judge pointed out to the jury a couple of government witnesses that supposedly were involved in the extortion plot, but never showed up in the courtroom to corroborate the government's case. Even though the prosecutor kept referring to them as part of the allegations against Verdi.
Further damaging the prosecution efforts was Assistant U.S. Attorney Denise Wolf. The bumbling prosecutor ran into her share of problems with the judge, who frequently criticized her lack of time management skills, as well as what the judge often decided were irrelevant questions.
The case has been hanging over Verdi for years. The alleged conspiracy involving Chappy's hit the media in 2008. Verdi resigned from L&I three years later under a cloud of suspicion. He was indicted in 2014.
Verdi was hung out to dry in the media. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran the story about the federal indictment and all the allegations against Verdi; so did the TV stations. But when Verdi's trial went down, only this blog and PhillyVoice.com were there to cover it.
In the Inquirer's defense, maybe they were down at the U.S. Attorney's office getting some inside dope on future criminal indictments, so they can hang some new victims in the public square.
Meanwhile, one of the old victims, Verdi, said he went broke paying for his legal expenses. He had to ask a judge to appoint a lawyer to defend him.
While he was under indictment, friends said, the feds repeatedly pressured Verdi to give them information he didn't have. Verdi's friends say the feds presented him with several proposed plea deals, but Verdi kept insisting that he didn't commit any crimes.
The breaking point for Verdi, friends say, was when the feds came to his house and made accusations in front of his children. That's when Verdi decided he had to fight it out in court.
Verdi took the witness stand in his own defense, always a risky move for a defendant in a criminal case. But Verdi told the judge that the prosecution presented so many untruths only he could explain to the jury what really happened.
Today, Verdi's big gamble paid off when he walked out of court a free man, after the judge shook his hand. The prosecutor, however, departed without saying anything.
Verdi's lawyer was pleased with the outcome of the trial.
"I'm very happy that Mr. Verdi and his family, who are truly good salt-of-the-earth people, can finally put all of this behind them," Susan Lin said.
"It was a just verdict."