RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A former Old Dominion University official testified Monday that Phillip A. Hamilton was hired to direct a new teacher training center because he used his clout as a member of the House of Delegates' budget-writing committee to secure funding for the project.
David Blackburn, now an educational consultant, said at the former legislator's bribery and extortion trial that Hamilton was qualified for the job but it would not have been offered to him had he not sponsored the $500,000 budget amendment to establish the Center for Teacher Quality and Educational Leadership.
Hamilton, a Newport News Republican, was vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee in 2007 when he sought the appropriation. Over the next two years, he was paid $80,000 as the center's part-time director. After newspapers began reporting on the arrangement, it became a campaign issue and Hamilton was defeated for re-election in 2009, ending a 21-year legislative career.
The defeat ended a House ethics investigation, but Hamilton was later indicted on bribery and extortion charges. He has pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court, where his trial is expected to last up to two weeks.
In opening statements, prosecutor David V. Harbach II said Hamilton "was hurting for cash" in 2006, when he began discussing the teacher training center with ODU officials. Hamilton was drawing part-time pay at the time from Newport News Public Schools and the legislature. Harbach said Hamilton set out "to solicit and accept a job at the ODU teaching center in exchange for securing funding for the center."
Hamilton's attorney, Andrew Sacks, said the former delegate was guilty only of "a mistake in judgment." He said Hamilton sought the money for the center and the job as director because he believed in its mission of training teachers to work in inner-city schools, and he now realizes the arrangement looked bad.
However, he said the evidence "will fall far short" of showing that Hamilton deliberately traded legislative favors for personal gain.
That evidence includes a series of emails between Hamilton and Blackburn that was presented to the jury on the trial's opening day. The e-mails, introduced while Blackburn was on the witness stand, generally showed the two men were communicating about Hamilton's efforts to secure the appropriation while also discussing the expectation that he would be hired as its director. In one, Hamilton said he needed at least $37,000 a year.
The jury also saw an email from Blackburn, who was head of ODU's Program for Research and Evaluation in Public Schools, to William Graves, dean of the College of Education: "Phil must feel he will get money...and is ensuring that he has a home to go to...if you recall, he only wanted a small part time deal."
Harbach testified that after the appropriation was secured, he advertised for the director's job in accordance with ODU policy even though there was no doubt Hamilton would get the job. Three people applied for the job but were never interviewed, he said. Hamilton never applied.
The prosecutor asked why Hamilton was hired.
"Because he secured funding," Blackburn said.
Other emails discussed Hamilton's desire to funnel his ODU salary through Newport News Public Schools, which ultimately did not happen, and growing concern when members of the Senate Finance Committee planned a visit to the university to look at the center and other programs the legislature had funded. Hamilton urged Blackburn not to mention his name unless senators brought it up. He also suggested that Blackburn pose as director of the center, which he did, Blackburn said.
Asked by the prosecutor why he lied, Blackburn said: "Frankly I was scared ... that they would pull the money." He said he didn't want the staffer to know "that money had been exchanged for a job."
Blackburn was granted immunity from prosecution to testify, Harbach said. Graves also has immunity and is on the government's witness list, the prosecutor said.
"Their hands aren't clean either," Harbach said.
The jury also is expected to hear videotaped testimony from former ODU president Roseann Runte, who is now president of Carleton University in Canada.
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