RICHMOND—— Former state delegate Phil Hamilton spent five hours Monday testifying in federal court on bribery and extortion charges, defiantly proclaiming his innocence and sparring with prosecutors over meetings, emails and other bits of evidence.
He firmly answered "absolutely not" to a series of questions posed by his defense attorney about whether he parlayed his once-considerable legislative influence into a $40,000-a-year part-time job at an Old Dominion University teacher training center.
Prosecutors are building their case on a series of emails that show Hamilton had agreed to seek funding for a teacher training center during the 2007 General Assembly session that eventually became located at ODU
At the same time, emails show Hamilton and ODU officials were talking about employing the then-state lawmaker as the center's director.
Prosecutors say it shows an illegal trade-off: a job for legislative support. Hamilton has admitted to making an error in judgment, but denies any criminal intent.
He was eventually hired to direct the center and worked there about two years. When the relationship came to light in 2009, he and ODU agreed to part ways. The controversy brought an end to his 21-year career in the House of Delegates when he lost his reelection bid later that year.
Some highlights from the day's testimony:
Personal finances: Hamilton said he and his wife were not in financial trouble before he sought the ODU job. The prosecution introduced emails last week that showed Phil and his wife, Kim, discussing low balances in their personal savings and checking accounts in June 2006. That didn't mean the family was going broke, Phil Hamilton said, only that they were running low on cash until other paychecks came in.
A desire to hire: Hamilton said another ODU official, David Blackburn, was constantly "hounding" him to work at the university, well before the controversy over the training center. It runs counter to the image that Hamilton was angling for employment there. Blackburn, a prosecution witness, has testified to a connection between Hamilton's legislative influence and getting the job. But Blackburn has admitted to lying about his own role in the case to other people, and he testified under immunity from prosecution.
Time on the job: U.S. attorney David Harbach pressed Hamilton on how much time he spent at the ODU training center after he was hired. When Harbach asked if he spent "almost no time" there, Hamilton replied, "Almost no time – I don't have the definition for that." He then said he spent at least 12 days there – from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. – and "there were other days," but did not provide specifics.
A key meeting: Hamilton met with top ODU officials in August 2006 to discuss funding for the center. Emails showed that Hamilton expected a job to also come up at that meeting, and that he would press for $6,000 a month. After the meeting, Hamilton emailed his wife that he "reinforced" the compensation figure. Hamilton said Monday that he did not recall doing that.
"My recollection is, I was late and it was a quick meeting," he said.
Hamilton spent the morning and part of the afternoon answering questions from his attorney, Andrew Sacks of Norfolk. During those exchanges, Hamilton indicated he never tried to hide that he was employed at ODU, listing the income on disclosure forms required of state delegates.
He said he never assured ODU officials that funding for a teacher training center would become reality because money was tight during the 2007 General Assembly session and his fellow House members were hostile to new spending initiatives.
Because of Blackburn's incessant recruitment efforts, Hamilton said he grew dismissive of the ODU official.
"I wouldn't refer anyone to David Blackburn about ODU," he said at one point.
Hamilton said he mentioned specifics about compensation in one email because Blackburn was constantly asking him what he needed to work at ODU, not because Hamilton was seeking a particular job..
The day also featured verbal sparring between Harbach, a U.S. trial attorney, and Hamilton, an experienced floor debater from his days in the House of Delegates.
When Harbach asked if the $40,000-a-year part-time job was important to the family income, Hamilton replied that the money was included in the family budget. When Harbach pressed him, Hamilton answered that all of his income was important in the family budget.