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Ex-congressional Aide Guilty For World Series Trip

WASHINGTON (AP) - A federal jury on Thursday found that a former congressional aide broke the law by taking a trip to the World Series with a corporate official and lobbyist who picked up the tab. It was the 21st consecutive conviction in a broad corruption investigation tied to Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Jurors found Fraser Verrusio, 41, guilty of conspiracy and accepting an illegal gratuity for the trip to the first game of the 2003 World Series in New York. He also was found guilty of making a false statement for failing to report the trip on his House financial disclosure form.

Verrusio was policy director for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee under the chairman at the time, Rep. Don Young, a Republican who still represents Alaska in the House. The trip was paid by United Rentals, a construction equipment rental company that was a client of Abramoff's firm and wanted Verrusio's help getting an amendment to a highway money bill.

Verrusio's lawyers said the trip was a legitimate business meeting and that Verrusio did nothing for the company in return. They suggested that federal agents pursued him because he refused to wear a wire in a separate corruption investigation of Young. The congressman was never charged.

The World Series trip came to the attention of federal authorities investigating influence-peddling related to Abramoff. The government eventually charged 21 people in the case, including lobbyists and figures from Capitol Hill and the Bush administration.

Verrusio's was the last remaining trial in the probe. Prosecutors obtained convictions against all charged: 18 pleaded guilty and the three who went to trial were convicted by juries.

Abramoff pleaded guilty to mail fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion in 2006 and cooperated with the probe of lesser figures. Last June, he was released from prison to a halfway house and then home confinement. He worked on marketing for a Baltimore pizzeria until his term under supervision ended in December.

Not everyone targeted by the Justice Department was charged. That includes some members of Congress who denied any wrongdoing and escaped prosecution.

Other than Abramoff, former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and the Bush's administration's top procurement official, David Safavian, those convicted were not widely known to the public before their involvement in the investigation. But less heralded lobbyists and congressional aides who discussed policymaking and legislation and sometimes spent evenings socializing together. The nights out were often what got them in trouble, with meals, drinks and event tickets paid for by the lobbyists who tried to get favors for their clients in return.

Three people accompanied Verrusio on the World Series trip: an official with United Rentals, a Washington lobbyist hired by the company who later worked for Abramoff and a Senate aide named Trevor Blackann who worked for the committee that would handle the highway bill in the Senate. All three testified against Verrusio.

Justice Department attorney Justin Shur told jurors in closing arguments that Verrusio's share of the trip was $1,259.77, including airfare, hotel accommodations, pre-game dinner at a steakhouse, tickets to the game, a souvenir jersey purchased at Yankee Stadium, entertainment at a strip club afterward and a chauffeured Cadillac Escalade to drive them around town.

Shur said the United Rentals representatives didn't bring Verrusio along because "he was a nice guy," but because they wanted him to make changes in the highway bill, including one that would encourage states to rent rather than buy road construction equipment.

"Our legislation was corrupted - it was corrupted the moment the defendant accepted that trip," Shur said. "United Rentals was tipping the scale."

Verrusio maintained he did nothing illegal and that Capitol Hill aides and lawmakers commonly accepted travel provided by corporate sponsors with business before Congress. Verrusio attorney Joshua Berman suggested in closing arguments that FBI agents pursued his client because he refused to wear a hidden monitoring device in their investigation of Young and his connections to an Alaska businessman convicted of bribing state lawmakers.

"Fraser Verrusio wasn't being the snitch," Berman told jurors. "Fraser Verrusio was refusing to wear a wire."

Berman also accused Blackann of lying on the witness stand to help prosecutors try to convict Verrusio in hopes that Blackann would get a lower sentence as part of a "sweetheart deal" in which he pleaded guilty to one count of filing a false tax return.

Berman said that while Blackann was corrupt and took thousands of dollars in tickets from lobbyists and helped them get construction equipment rental provisions in the Senate version of the bill, Verrusio "never inserted one word of any language into any bill."

The amendment was not ultimately included in the final version of the legislation that became law. But Verrusio's refusal to cooperate and his decision to face a jury mean he could face a stiffer sentence than Blackann. The charges Verrusio was convicted of carry up to a 12-year sentence. Verrusio's sentencing is scheduled for May 6.