RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A former Virginia legislator who solicited a job as director of a teacher training center he helped create with taxpayer money was convicted of bribery and extortion Wednesday.
A federal jury deliberated just over four hours before finding Phillip A. Hamilton of Newport News guilty of the felony charges, which are punishable by up to 30 years in prison. U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson set sentencing for Aug. 12. Hamilton remains free on bond.
Some of the Hamilton family members who sat through the eight-day trial wept softly, and the former lawmaker bowed his head slightly as the verdicts were read. After court adjourned, Hamilton, 59, embraced his sobbing wife and whispered into her right ear before leaving the courtroom.
"We're shocked at the verdict," defense attorney Andrew Sacks told reporters. "People are very distrustful of public officials these days and Phil took that on the chin. The evidence itself was extremely weak."
Hours earlier, in closing arguments, Sacks told the jury: "What we fear the most is that you will convict Phil Hamilton of bribery and extortion not because he is guilty, but because you don't like how it looks or how it smells or because of whether it passes the so-called stink test."
Sacks said he will appeal the convictions.
U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride said in a teleconference with reporters that the convictions send a strong message to those who hold positions of public trust: "Never betray that trust, and if you do we will hold you accountable."
Emails introduced into evidence in the case showed that Hamilton and officials at Old Dominion University were communicating about the director's job and the budget amendment to create the center in 2006 and 2007. After the General Assembly approved Hamilton's $500,000 budget amendment, he was hired for the part-time, $40,000-per-year position.
"You don't send emails like he sent and not intend a corrupt exchange," prosecutor David Harbach told the jury.
Hamilton held the job for two years, until press reports about the arrangement prompted him to resign. The controversy became an issue in his re-election campaign, which he lost in 2009, ending a 21-year legislative career.
Two former ODU officials, David Blackburn and retired education dean William Graves, testified that there was never any doubt Hamilton would get the job as center director if he secured the funding. Graves testified that former ODU president Roseann Runte ordered Hamilton's hiring. Runte, who now lives in Canada and testified by videotaped deposition, denied Graves' assertion.
MacBride said the investigation into the ODU matter is closed. Blackburn and Graves, the university officials most directly involved in the hiring, were granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for their cooperation with the government.
Federal authorities "looked closely at all the individuals who Del. Hamilton reached out to or solicited commitments from," MacBride said. "Ultimately, the grand jury proceeded to bring charges against Del. Hamilton as the guy who cooked up this scheme."
In closing arguments earlier Wednesday, Sacks said the government failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Hamilton demanded the job as a payoff for sponsoring the budget amendment. He also attacked the credibility of Blackburn and Graves, who both admitted that they had previously lied to investigators about their roles in the hiring.
But Harbach said the law does not require the government to prove that Hamilton blatantly demanded the job.
"Corrupt solicitation is enough under the statute," he said.
He also said that if any witness lacked credibility, it was Hamilton. He said Hamilton answered his own attorney's questions fully, but "was a poster boy for evasiveness" on cross-examination by the prosecution.
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