Ex-L&I official acquitted in bribery case: 'If you're right, you fight'

A day after a federal jury acquitted him of bribery and extortion, a former deputy commissioner with the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections said he felt vindicated and at peace for the first time in six years.

Jurors took just a few hours Tuesday to find Dominic Verdi, 61, not guilty of all seven counts lodged against him in a case in which prosecutors had alleged he shook down bar and club owners to buy beer from a distributorship in which he owned a secret stake.

But in an interview Wednesday, Verdi wasn't interested in surmising what jurors made of the case.

"I can't say what the jury took away from the trial," he said. "All I know is that I told the truth. The facts of the case, from my perspective, were skewed."

Verdi told jurors as much from the witness stand near the conclusion of the eight-day trial.

Government witnesses had painted a portrait of Verdi as an aggressive enforcer of city building codes - a hard-charging stickler on the Nuisance Task Force who donned bulletproof vests to accompany police on raids of crack houses and problem bars. But, they said, he was also willing to look the other way for bar owners who bought their beer in the right place.

Verdi maintained prosecutors had it all wrong.

Echoing his testimony at trial, Verdi admitted Wednesday that he had lied to the city's Office of the Inspector General when asked in 2007 about the $20,000 he had invested in Chappy's Beer, Butts & Bets, the South Philadelphia distributorship that also employed his wife.

He hid his ownership stake, he said, to avoid questions about potential conflicts of interest.

But he insisted that he never made any money out of Chappy's and never pressured anyone to buy beer there.

He only offered the same help to Chappy's customers that he offered to countless other bar owners who came to him seeking advice in navigating the city's licensing bureaucracy, he said.

"I never took any money from anyone," he said. "I never went to anyone and said you need to do this, or this bad thing is going to happen. That's not my nature."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Denise Wolf argued that Verdi never had to be so explicit in making extortionate threats. She did not return calls to discuss the verdict Wednesday.

"Bar owners reasoned that it would be a good business decision to purchase beer from Chappy's," she wrote in court filings in advance of the trial. "Bar owners, recognizing Verdi's authority, expected preferential treatment and protection from Verdi in return."

But establishing that Verdi's role at Chappy's posed a conflict with his job at L&I is not the same as proving that he had committed the crimes with which he was charged, his lawyer Susan Lin said.

"The quality of the evidence that the prosecution presented to the jury was not something they could rely on," she said. "There is an absolute difference between a conflict of interest and bribery and extortion."

What's more, she said, many of those who testified that Verdi had crossed that line proved to be problematic witnesses, each with something to gain in exchange for their testimony.

They included John Pettit, the former manager of the Oasis Gentleman's Club in Southwest Philadelphia, who told jurors Verdi offered the strip club protection from being shut down when its customers became too rowdy.

But Pettit had to acknowledge he was part of Oasis' problem and is currently incarcerated for third-degree murder - a charge that stemmed from a 2009 fight he was involved in that killed a drunken patron.

Other witnesses awaited sentencing for crimes ranging from tax fraud to extortion and hoped to receive a break due to their cooperation in the Verdi case.

Verdi, though, says he is just glad he's not waiting around for a sentencing date of his own.

He retired in 2011, after it became clear he was the target of a corruption investigation. Now, he says, he is contemplating a return to work of some kind. He hasn't decided whether he has any desire to try to return to L&I.

"I tell my kids all the time, If you do something wrong, you're going to have to deal with the consequences," he said. "But if you're right, you fight - and that's what I did."

jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-854-2608 @jeremyrroebuck

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