USA v. Botti: A Government Without Balls

The Government spoke from the well of a Connecticut court the other day. A spindly prosecutor stood up and told a jury that the accused had paid a local mayor tens of thousands of dollars in bribes. He had the proof. He was going to show the jury.

"James Botti bought public officials as often as he bought automobiles. Like a nice car, Mark Lauretti didn't come cheaply," the prosecution said. Botti paid the bribes to gain approval to build restaurants and a bank, the Government said.

Here's the rub: The Government never charged the mayor with receipt of the bribes. After years of investigations and hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, this is the best the Government can do: Stand in the well of a court and malign an uncharged official with complicity in a crime. It is sheer cowardice.

Lawyers enjoy immunity for the statements they make in open court. You can say anything you like without fear of defamation so long as it is on the record. But this kind of talk is cheap. You don't expoect cheap sensationalism to be the Government's currency at trial: At least it is not supposed to be. Prosecutors, we like to pretend, do justice. But not in this case.

Throughout the Botti prosecution the Government was careful not to disclose the name of the man Botti is alleged to have bribed. The public justification for this was a desire not to compromise an ongoing investigation. It was also to avoid harm to the reputation of an uncharged man.

But today, when the press was present, and when immunity was firmly in place, the Government cast stones. It was a gutless and ball-less maneuver. And it might just be what Mr. Botti needs to jump start his defense.

The Justice Department has been on a tear for the past decade in Connecticut, all but serving as an unelected and unaccountable oversight body for state and local government officials. Gov. John Rowland has done time. So has the mayor of Waterbury, and the mayor of Bridgeport. The good boys and girls in Justice were having a good time knocking off state and local politicians.

Then they set their sites on Mayor Lauretti of Shelton, and they came up empty. To justify the great time and expense of the investigation, they needed a sacrificial defendant: So they picked Botti, and charged him with bribing a public official the Government lacks the evidence to indict.

Botti's lawyer, Willie Dow, is a consummate insider, and is generally too polite to put things bluntly. I hope he rethinks that in this case. The Government is behaving like a ball-less bully in the Botti case. It strikes at a man who cannot strike back from the well of a court. It seeks to justify a wasted effort by charging half a crime.

The prosecution of Botti is a sick joke. Botti broke the law with another? Then charge the other! The opening statements today sound a lot like a bad joke: "Did you hear about the guy who was caught in bed cheating on his wife with some floozy? His wife really let the other woman have it."

"What'd she do to the guy?" you might ask.

"Nothing. She said she couldn't prove he was really doing her."


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