Colorful closing arguments as Dowie verdict looms

LOS ANGELES: It's like that scene in Casablanca, said Assistant US District Attorney Adam Kamenstein, in his final attempt at convincing jurors to find former Fleishman-Hillard Los Angeles executives Doug Dowie and John Stodder guilty of federal wire fraud and conspiracy charges.

LOS ANGELES: It's like that scene in Casablanca, said Assistant US District Attorney Adam Kamenstein, in his final attempt at convincing jurors to find former Fleishman-Hillard Los Angeles executives Doug Dowie and John Stodder guilty of federal wire fraud and conspiracy charges.

It's the scene in which - while collecting his winnings - French police captain Renault exclaims that he's "shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"

That was just one of many colorful allusions made during Thursday's closing arguments in the Dowie-Stodder trial, an eight-hour, multi-media display, and the last chance for both the prosecution and defense to present their positions before the invoice- and e-mail-inundated jury began its verdict deliberations.

In front of a packed courtroom, Kamenstein began his case summary by recalling Assistant US Attorney Cheryl O'Connor Murphy's opening statements. "My colleague was being overgenerous" he said, when she explained that the allegations were a matter of "first-grade morals and third-grade math."

"We [learn that] lying and cheating are wrong well before first grade," Kamenstein corrected. And when adults do it, he said, "it's not just wrong, it's fraud."

Referring to the month-long trial's binder upon binder of e-mail evidence as "a wonderful portal into the minds of these defendants," Kamenstein highlighted several key correspondences, labeling allegedly over-billed Fleishman clients including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the World Wide Church of God, and Gehry Partners architectural firm as "victims."

Harkening back to FBI agent Dane Costley's LA DWP billing-history chart, Kamenstein likened its "red zone" - the area representing both legitimate and purportedly fraudulent Fleishman "write-ups" - as the place "where they make the sausage." There's "some good stuff, some meat," in there, he said, but "there's a lot of filler you don't want to know about," as well. "That's fraud," Kamenstein told the court. "That's the filler in the sausage."

Associating the one-time Fleishman GM to bank robber Willie Sutton - and the firm's alleged over-billing scam to an erroneously tallied restaurant check - Kamenstein used a foam-core board and video-deposition segments to remind jurors of the now-infamous "pad" e-mail chain, in which Dowie appears to call for the fraudulent boosting of employee hours.

"This is not someone who's learning English as a second language," Kamenstein said, noting that Dowie was well-educated, and knew exactly what the word "pad" meant. "The language of conspiracy" in the e-mails was as obvious as if taken "from a cheap detective novel," Kamenstein asserted.

Next up was Dowie lawyer Nick Hanna, behind him, a white screen emblazoned with the words, "Doug Dowie is not guilty" in black capital letters.

"This may be about third-grade math, but the government's case just doesn't add up," Hanna began, trademark hand-in-pocket-casual stance. After stripping away the prosecution's "guesswork, innuendo, and argument," he said, what jurors will find is a "hardworking, demanding" man who cared about his firm, reputation, employees, and clients - and never instructed anyone to falsify bills. In fact, Hanna reminded, not a single one of the trial's 15 witnesses had testified that Dowie did. The prosecution's entire case, Hanna continued, is based on the testimony of "scared, intimidated witnesses who cut a deal with the government, and a handful of e-mails taken out of context."

Reminding jurors of who seemed to contradict whom, and which testimonies appeared rehearsed, Hanna presented to the court a roundup of the "Government's Version" and "The Real Story" regarding each witness' testimony, complete with two-color visual accompaniment. Former Fleishman SVP Fred Muir, for example, was presented by the government as a "whistleblower who over-billed out of ignorance," and left Fleishman "because of pangs of conscience." The "Real Story," he said - revealed under cross-examination - was that Muir was not intimated by Dowie, tried to blackmail him, and couldn't even identify his own handwriting on the stand. And former Fleishman SVP Public Affairs Steve Sugerman, Hanna said, just "needed to point a finger at someone ... he spins stories for a living, that is his job."

Encouraging jurors to "look at witnesses with a critical eye," Hanna stressed that some "witnesses weren't in a position to know what they were talking about ... Would you trust these people to be the executers of your will?" he asked. If not, he said, they shouldn't be allowed to decide the destinies of Dowie and Stodder.

Hanna also drew attention to the cross-examination of Jennifer Laird-Manfre, the former Fleishman account executive rather aggressively questioned by Kamenstein. "You all saw how Miss Manfre was treated on the stand when she testified," Hanna said, conveniently overlooking his own cross-examination techniques. "Can you imagine what it must have been like for her in the interrogation room?'

Continuing his subtle yet effective "get under their skin" tactic, Hanna said that although the prosecution insisted that "fraud was rampant" at Fleishman, the court was never given an exact over-billing figure. According to witnesses, however, it had to have been less than $324,000 in all, Hanna said - and considering that the firm billed between $9 and $12 million annually from 2000 to 2004, "this was truly an example of the federal government making a mountain out of a molehill."

He added that while people have been known to "take big risks for big rewards," Dowie would never bother with this kind of small-beans money. That would be like "Tiger Woods kickin' the ball a little closer to the hole," Hanna said.

Acknowledging that "sloppiness and bad management," did occur at Fleishman, that does "not equal criminal fraud," Hanna said. He also noted that his client could indeed be "a little rough around the edges" - especially noticeable in the "touchy feely" PR industry. When Hanna compared Dowie to "the toughest professor you ever had" - and launched into a lively recollection about one of his own former law school profs - US District Judge Gary Feess interrupted, insisting that closing arguments were not the place for personal anecdotes. Off his game for only a few moments, Hanna quickly changed gears, turning the court's attention to the "pad" e-mail string.

Calling e-mails "sound bites" which were likely complemented by simultaneous phone calls and conversations, Hanna reminded the jury that the string included Fleishman financial-department executives Dale Sebold and Mike Roth, both based in the firm's St. Louis headquarters. Neither man, Hanna said, appeared to "find [the e-mails] sinister at all." And like Kamenstein, Hanna mentioned Dowie's journalism background in relation to the word "pad.": "Ever read the sports page?" he asked the jury. "The Dodgers 'padded' their lead against the Padres." It's just a colorful term, he said, for "added to."

The star of the day's proceedings, however, was Stodder attorney Jan Handzlik. Dismissing the prosecution's suggestion that Stodder's motivation for allegedly over-billing clients was "you don't say no" to Doug Dowie, Handzlik incorporated an animated mix of trial summarization and testimony re-enactments to display that Stodder could - and did - say no to "he who must be obeyed."

Urging the jury to find his client not guilty, Handzlik called attention to the testimony of Jennifer Laird-Manfre, a former US soldier, he noted, who wouldn't just "break down" under normal circumstances. Using Manfre as a metaphor for the case itself, Handzlik acknowledged that "writing up" a World Wide Church of God bill might not have the "best" way for the account exec to capture her undocumented hours. But she "was acting in good faith," he said. And unlike in instances of robberies or burglaries - when there is "rarely a question about what happened and obviously the person had a criminal intent" - there was "never any criminal intent," on the part of John Stodder, Handzlik said.

Stodder may be "slovenly, sloppy, [and] disorganized, but he's a brilliant PR guy," Handzlik told the court, repeating the unflattering-but-legal adjectives he's used to describe his client throughout the trial. At Fleishman, Handzlik added, "They didn't think they were doing anything wrong."

To accent this, Handzlik reminded the jury that Stodder's staff was in part comprised of former city government employees, "highly regarded folks" whom the one-time SVP frequently encouraged - via well-documented emails - to work hard and document their time. The attorney then busted into a mesmerizing retelling of a phone conversation between former firm VP Hilary Norton and St. Louis-based billing representative Debbie Heckman; the routine actually brought a small smile to Stodder's until-then emotionless face.

Handzlik also criticized the government's '"black and white" approach to its investigation, like Hanna, recalling the prosecution's opening statements. "It's not a simple matter of third-grade math, or first-grade ethics or morals, whatever that means," he told jurors. To establish proof requires a through investigation of documents - admittedly, a "time-consuming, laborious, and boring" endeavor. That "simply wasn't done," Handzlik asserted. "My equation in this case," he said, "is no motive plus no intent equals no crime."

For his grand finale, Handzlik reminded jurors that even after Dowie had left the agency, Stodder remained, continuing to oversee the firm's public affairs division and bill clients until he, too, was dismissed - and subsequently indicted - in January 2005.

"If it weren't so sad, it's kind of comical," Handzlik said of the whole affair.

For his rebuttal, Kamenstein suggested that both defense teams had take a "shotgun approach," presenting as many defenses as possible in hopes that one would stick. "If they get you to focus on anything other than the evidence," he told the jury, "they've done their job. But your job is to focus on the evidence. ... Your verdict is not to be based on speculation."

Following a briefing by Judge Feess - including instructions not to determine a verdict by "the flip of a coin or drawing of lots" - jurors were escorted out of the courtroom.

As for the fates of Doug Dowie and John Stodder, that remains to be seen. But this, too, recalls a line from Casablanca - in fact the very first: "Here, the fortunate ones, through money, or influence, or luck, might obtain exit visas.... But the others wait, and wait, and wait, and wait."

In the meantime, a summary judgment hearing in Dowie's wrongful termination suit against Fleishman-Hillard is scheduled for Monday morning.

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