Before the feds' case against state Sen. Matt McCoy went to the jury last week, the prosecutor made an appeal. Referring to her star witness, she told jurors, "The government is not asking that you take Tom Vasquez home with you for Christmas. We're just asking that you consider his testimony."
A good thing, too. Vasquez, McCoy's former business associate, was so thoroughly discredited during the nine-day trial that you might not want to share an elevator ride with him — much less take him home.
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Which is to say that the federal government's case against an Iowa state senator — a rarity to begin with — was based on the word of a man former associates depicted as a drug user, a deadbeat and an abuser of women; a man so shady even his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsors called him "a pathological liar."
Not surprisingly, it took a Des Moines jury less than two hours to acquit McCoy.
But even if the outcome is the right one, the outrage is that the federal government would pour two years and all sorts of taxpayer money ($2,600 of which went right into Vasquez's pocket) into building a case over a private business dispute.
Why would the federal government contact, wire and pay an informant without checking him out — or, worse, despite knowing he was disreputable? It has all the earmarks of a politically motivated witch hunt.
The indictment accused McCoy of attempting to extort money from Vasquez's employer, Security Plus, by using his position as a lawmaker to threaten the company with economic harm. But the jury believed McCoy's version, that as a consultant to Security Plus who was helping to create demand for its QuietCare product, he was due a commission of $100 for each system sold. Vasquez in court acknowledged offering the same commission to others.
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McCoy threatened to form a competing company if he wasn't paid. Vasquez told police that McCoy also threatened to use his political influence to ensure Security Plus wouldn't be a Medicaid vendor.
The feds got wind of this, contacted Vasquez and wired him to tape conversations with McCoy. Vasquez and his boss then paid McCoy about $2,000 of the government's money, which was the basis of the extortion attempt allegation.
Any time a public official conducts private business with a government entity (e.g. Medicaid), it has potential ethical pitfalls. McCoy claimed he sought and was given approval from Senate officials. The ethics rules may need amending. But that's not the point.
The U.S attorney general's office is already under investigation for firing federal prosecutors who wouldn't allow themselves to be used as political pawns for the administration. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales resigned in August over it.
McCoy is a Democrat. Matthew Whitaker, the U.S. attorney who launched the case, is a Bush-appointed Republican. McCoy is openly gay. Whitaker has ties to the evangelical Christian community. McCoy's lawyers have charged that the grand-jury process resulting in an indictment against McCoy was tainted because prosecutors selectively played jurors portions of taped conversations.
And then there are the conflicting stories about payments made to Vasquez as an informant. Asked by McCoy's defense if he was paid, an assistant U.S. attorney, Mary Luxa, said he wasn't. But memos later showed not only that he was paid but that Luxa authorized the payments.
In a Des Moines radio interview in March, Whitaker spoke of his priorities as a federal prosecutor: "We're trying to protect the people, the children and our way of life..." he said. "We're trying to take the worst of the worst and put them in federal prison..."
This is the worst of the worst?
McCoy's defense tried to get access to memos between the FBI, Justice Department and local U.S. attorney's office, but was turned down in U.S. District Court. His lawyers wanted to see whether anything indicated a political motivation. There's nothing else they can do, says attorney F. Montgomery Brown. "Prosecutors have near absolute immunity. There's just no remedy there."
There is one, but it would have to come from a member of Congress. Sens. Tom Harkin or Chuck Grassley can and should request access to the correspondence. Voters and taxpayers deserve to know whether this was just a poorly conceived and badly bungled effort by the government — or whether something else was going on.
Rekha Basu is an opinion columnist for The Des Moines Register. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow her on Twitter @RekhaBasu and at Facebook.com/ColumnistRekha. Her book, "Finding Her Voice: A collection of Des Moines Register columns about women's struggles and triumphs in the Midwest," is available at ShopDMRegister.com/FindingHerVoice.