NY Congressman Convicted On DWI Charge

Rep. Vito Fossella, R-NY, right, exits court with his defense team after his trial on drunken driving charges in Alexandria, Va. on Oct. 17, 2008. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Rep. Vito Fossella was convicted Friday of drunken driving in suburban Virginia, another blow from a late-night traffic stop that exposed secrets of his personal life and wrecked his career.

After a daylong trial at Alexandria General District Court, Judge Becky Moore found Fossella guilty of driving under the influence when he was pulled over for running a red light shortly after midnight on May 1. The arrest led to revelations that he had fathered a child from an extramarital affair, and he decided not to seek re-election. Fossella, New York City's only Republican congressman, was first elected to the House in 1997.

The judge said she would hold a hearing Dec. 8 to determine if prosecutors had met the legal threshold for high blood alcohol content, which would mean a mandatory five-day jail sentence.

Crying friends hugged Fossella in the courtroom after the verdict.

"Don't worry. It'll be OK," he told them.

The congressman declined to speak to reporters as he left the courthouse but issued a statement saying he was grateful the trial gave "an honest and straightforward account" of the events.

"I made a serious mistake and I want to again apologize for setting the wrong example," he said. "I believe we live in a nation of laws, that no one person is above the law and I look forward to the judge's final determination in December."

Fossella's day in court featured hours of dry, technical testimony, but also talk about a White House party, an Intoxilyzer 5000 breath-test machine and the congressman's bowels.

The afternoon before his arrest, Fossella had been at the White House celebrating the New York Giants' Super Bowl victory, but witnesses insisted no alcohol was served or consumed there.

Later, he went to dinner with friends where he had "no more than a glass and a half" of wine, he testified, plus a few more sips at a tavern.

Police officer Jamie Gernatt said he stopped Fossella's car that night for running a red light, and the driver, Fossella, appeared to be drunk.

"There was a strong odor of alcoholic beverage coming from the car and his lips were stained red," Gernatt testified. The police officer said Fossella told him he'd had two or three glasses of wine, but had bloodshot eyes and made mistakes in sobriety tests.

Police say his blood-alcohol content level was 0.17 percent, more than twice the legal limit, and under state law anyone convicted of having a BAC above 0.15 must serve a mandatory five-day jail term.

In announcing her verdict, the judge said she would hear arguments on that issue later.

Through the day's evidence, Fossella listened glumly but intently to the evidence. At one point, he looked incredulous as Gernatt described one of their conversations on the night of the arrest, but otherwise he showed little reaction.

Another officer, Richard Sandoval, described strange behavior by Fossella when he was brought to a police station to submit to a breath test by the Intoxilyzer 5000.

At one point, according to Sandoval, Fossella asked to go to the bathroom and was told he couldn't. At that point, the congressman said he would have to defecate in the room.

Sandoval said he told Fossella they were "guests" at the police station, and "he wasn't going to defecate" in it.

On the witness stand, the congressman denied the story, saying that the officer had yelled at him and mocked him at times during the breath testing.

Defense lawyer Jerry Phillips challenged the types of field sobriety tests given to Fossella and spent hours trying to prove the Intoxilyzer 5000 machine gave bad readings due to interference from police radios and because Fossella used a hand sanitizer.

The judge rejected a defense claim the first officer had no grounds to arrest Fossella.

Police said the married 43-year-old told them when he was pulled over that he was headed to see his sick daughter. Given that his wife and children live in New York, that statement set off alarms and eventually led to the revelation he had secretly fathered a daughter, now 3 years old, with a Virginia woman, Laura Fay, a former Air Force officer and congressional liaison.

After admitting the relationship, Fossella announced he would not seek re-election, a drastic fall for a politician once viewed as a potential mayor of New York City. His downfall has also created an opportunity for Democrats to gain a seat in Congress in November.

Fossella's troubles have only further hurt his state party's election chances next month. If a Democrat wins Fossella's seat, it will mark the first time in 35 years that all of New York City has been represented by Democrats.