Four lawyers squared off in a federal courtroom today to rehash the Larry Farnese case in closing arguments that amounted to two hours of tedium.
On their end, the defendants' lawyers view the case as Big Brother overstepping his bounds by invading the 8th Ward to criminalize politics as usual. Meanwhile, the constituents of the First Senatorial District, who have seen this movie before, are left to wonder whether their third straight state senator in the past 40 years will soon be heading off to jail.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert J. Heberle got things stared today by telling a jury that Ellen Chapman "sold her vote and Larry Farnese bought it."
"He wanted to consolidate his power," the prosecutor said about Farnese's quest to become ward leader. "He wanted it so badly he was willing to bribe, cheat and lie to make it happen."
On May 18, 2011, Farnese made 52 calls to Democratic Committee members in the 8th Ward. At 1:34 p.m. he called Ellen Chapman, the 27th person on his list, and talked for eight minutes, Heberle told the jury. Two minutes later, Chapman was on the phone to her ex-husband, presumably talking about the deal she had just struck with Farnese, the prosecutor said.
Neither Chapman nor her ex-husband, LGBT activist David Feldman, however, ever took the witness stand to testify.
Nineteen minutes later, Heberle said, Chapman called another committeeman, Stephen Huntington. Chapman, Huntington testified at trial, was in tears when she told him she couldn't support him for ward leader because she had just cut a deal with Farnese.
Or, as the feds would have you believe, a deal with the devil.
"She knew she had just done something wrong," Heberle told the jury. "She had just accepted a bribe." It was a "quid pro quo, this for that, money for a vote," Heberle said.
"Quite simply, this was a crime of opportunity," Heberle told the jury. But it was against the law, the prosecutor argued. Chapman, he said, "cannot simply sell her vote to the highest bidder."
When Chapman sold her vote, the prosecutor argued, the local Democratic committee was defrauded because they had to a right expect "honest services" form Chapman.
Instead, the prosecutor said, the government had presented "overwhelming evidence" of a bribery scheme where Chapman sold her vote to Farnese for $6,000.
Elizabeth Toplin, arguing on behalf of Chapman, stated what happened between the state senator and the committee woman wasn't a bribe. Farnese had just agreed to "help her [Chapman] find a scholarship" for her daughter, Toplin told the jury.
And besides, she said, Farnese didn't have to buy votes.
"They wanted a state senator for ward leader," Toplin said about the members of the Democratic committee in the 8th Ward. Farnese had the job of ward leader sewn up "without Larry making a single phone call," the prosecutor reminded the jury, as she quoted the testimony of Sam Hopkins, another Democratic committeeman.
Toplin talked about how the government had the burden of proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt. She defined reasonable doubt as something that would make you pause or hesitate before making an important decision.
Such as pondering the actions of Chapman, a woman so honest that when the FBI showed up and asked for her phone, Toplin said, she just handed it over.
To convict Chapman, Toplin told the jury, they would have to find that Chapman was a Democratic party official. Even though a committee person is not a party official, Toplin said, but a member of the party's lowest rank.
Next up was Mark B. Sheppard, Farnese's lawyer.
"Senator Farnese didn't need to bribe Ellen Chapman," Sheppard told the jury. "He had no intention of bribing Ellen Chapman."
As he did in his opening statement, Sheppard implored the jury to use their common sense to see through the government's overblown indictment.
"The government's theory," Sheppard said, rises and falls on the suggestion that Farnese was "so desperate" to become ward leader that he decided to commit a crime.
It was as if Farnese got up one day and declared, "I'm gonna become a felon today," Sheppard told the jury.
"Does that make sense," Sheppard argued. "This was not a bribe," Sheppard said. Farnese was merely helping a constituent.
When Farnese became ward leader, Sheppard said, it was a job "they couldn't give away." And when he came to Chapman's aid, he was trying to help a "very deserving young lady," namely Chapman's daughter, who "wanted to work for the federal government, of all things," Sheppard said.
Sheppard made his appeal to the jury's common sense.
"If you need 27 votes" to become ward leader, Sheppard said, "You don't bribe one person."
And if you're setting up a criminal conspiracy, Sheppard told the jury, "Criminals don't file public records . . . Criminals don't pay bribes with checks."
"The government made this case somehow into 13 different charges," Sheppard said. But, "If you're bribing someone you pay them with a sack of cash."
Next, Sheppard brought up criminal intent.
There was "no evidence that Sen. Farnese thought he was buying a vote," Sheppard said. He urged the jury to "Let him [Farnese] go back to doing what he's does best, helping people."
On rebuttal, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Kravis told the jury that Ellen Chapman was a Democratic party officer who owed her constituents honest services.
The Democratic party, Kravis said, had "entrusted her with getting out the vote." Chapman, the prosecutor said, was "elected by her neighborhood to be their voice."
Instead, Kravis said, she sold her vote for money.
"Did Ellen Chapman want to vote for Larry Farnese for ward leader," Kravis asked. "The answer is no."
Then, he sat down.
Earlier in the day, Judge Cynthia M. Rufe had heard arguments from the defense to dismiss the government's case before it ever went to the jury.
In order to convict the defendants, Sheppard argued, the government was asking jury to speculate on what happened between Farnese and Chapman, without hearing directly from either defendant.
Both Farnese and Chapman told the judge that they would not be testifying in their own defense.
The government "has stepped into an area where they really had no business being," Sheppard told the judge. Sheppard argued that if Farnese is convicted, it would "disenfranchise the voters" who elected Farnese as their state senator.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Kravis told the judge that "Senator Farnese entered into a corrupt agreement that amounts to bribery."
The judge responded that she would continue to reserve judgment on the defense's motion to dismiss the case.
Before she adjourned court for the day, the judge said that beginning at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow, she would begin charging the jury. And then it will be time for deliberations.