WASHINGTON – As courthouses go, the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse in downtown Washington is what Yankee Stadium is to baseball.
If you’re a big name and get in trouble here, chances are you’ll wind up at Prettyman in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol.
That’s where Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) is currently on trial. Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff Scooter Libby faced trial here. Former Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) entered a guilty plea for his transgressions at Prettyman.
Another major league park -- but a step down from Prettyman -- is the Albert V. Bryan Courthouse across the river in Alexandria, VA. It’s more Fenway Park than Yankee Stadium. The Bryan Courthouse entertained various hearings involving the case of embattled Rep. Bill Jefferson (D-LA), convicted KGB spy Robert Hansen and al Qaeda terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui.
And then there’s the Franklin P. Backus Courthouse, also in Alexandria. If Prettyman and Bryan are the big leagues, then the Backus Courthouse is AA Akron. Big trials never hit Backus, which is home to petty theft, small claims and DUI.
Which brings us to Rep. Vito Fossella (R-VA).
Judge Becky Moore convicted Fossella of DUI in Traffic Court at the Backus Courthouse Friday.
Traffic Court? Did I say AA Akron? Let’s try Rookie League Johnson City.
You can imagine the surprise of passersby on their way to work Friday morning only to encounter a mob of reporters, photographers and TV producers hanging out in front of the courthouse, waiting for Fossella to arrive.
It’s rare for members of Congress to go on trial, let alone face DUI charges. And it’s even more rare that an innocuous traffic stop after running a red light could trigger the arrest of a popular congressman who many thought could someday become mayor of New York.
But it was utterly improbable that Fossella’s May 1 arrest would unearth one of the best-kept secrets in Congress: that the married, father of three from Staten Island fathered an out-of-wedlock toddler with a woman who once served as a military liaison to the House of Representatives.
So in the early Friday morning chill, the media horde waited outside the courthouse for Fossella. Most of the photographers and camera operators hung back in an alcove of the courthouse in case Fossella made his approach through a nearby breezeway.
Meantime, I camped out by the street. In gang parlance, I was the Five-0. The lookout. A wireless microphone in hand, I scouted each taxi cab that pulled up and every Brooks Brothers-clad attorney who self-importantly swaggered up to the courthouse.
While on my mission I ran into a former next-door-neighbor who briefly volunteered to keep his eyes peeled for Fossella.
At 9:25 am, two women who identified themselves as Suzie-Q and Jen actually thought they could guess when Fossella would materialize.
"Let me see," declared Suzie-Q, who apparently practices some type of tartaric mudra. She closed her eyes and pressed both thumbs to her index fingers.
"I will say…he’ll be here in about seven minutes."
"Alright. 9:32. You’re on," I replied, checking my watch.
The women left. And 9:32 came and went, without Fossella.
"Big doin’s in there today?" asked one man.
"Congressman Vito Fossella," I answered.
"Sweet!" he replied with a laugh. "That’s quality entertainment!"
Quality entertainment it was.
Some actual observations during the trial that didn’t wrap until nightfall:
We learned the importance of standing on one foot, while holding the other foot at least six inches off the ground and counting to 37, simultaneously adding the suffix "thousand" to each numeral -- a task the Congressman apparently failed to execute to the satisfaction of the arresting police officer.
We learned from prosecutor David Lord the importance of reciting the ABC’s while starting at "D" and ending, ironically, at "T." (The officer testified Fossella missed "G and "K.")
Never mind that if you’re asked to start with "D," the recitation should be called your DEG’s and not your ABC’s.
Other items of interest:
I learned how to spell "infrared spectroscopy."
One witness found it important to announce under oath that "I bleed (New York) Giant blue."
Alexandria Police Officer Richard Sandoval testified that the congressman once threatened to urinate on the floor of the police station. Sandoval then told Fossella that he was a "guest" at the station and "would not allow him to defecate on the floor."
Perhaps one of the most unusual moments of testimony came from Josh Hahn, owner of Logan Tavern in Washington. That’s the last destination Fossella is believed to have patroned before his May 1 DUI arrest.
This Spring, Hahn told the New York Daily News that Fossella and a male friend showed up at Logan Tavern around 10 pm on April 30. Fossella’s pal later fell asleep near the restroom and crashed into a table, breaking it in two.
Hahn told the Daily News in early May that he couldn’t "imagine (Fossella) getting into a car. They were (both) incapable of driving."
Yet on the witness stand Friday, Hahn testified that Fossella came to the aid of his plastered friend and "was not swaying or staggering."
Even though Fossella was on trial for DUI, few could resist the tawdry underbelly of the case: his illicit affair which produced a 3-year-old daughter with his Virginia-based paramour.
At one point, the court broke for lunch. A woman leading three young girls exited the courthouse just seconds before the lawyers, journalists and court officials scampered out of the building in search of a sandwich.
One pedestrian noticed the girls and asked her husband, "Are those (Fossella’s) people?"
"Well, from which family?" the husband responded.
Another man had another way of summing up Fossella’s sordid affair when he walked by the courthouse early Friday morning as I staked out the congressman with my microphone.
"Who’s on trial today?" he inquired.
I told him it was Vito Fossella.
"Ah," he said. "Oh. Ewww."
Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.