WASHINGTON — Defense attorneys for Lyn Nofziger, focusing on an apparent loophole in federal ethics law, contended Tuesday that the former White House aide had lobbied former colleagues on relatively minor issues and therefore did not break the law.
In his opening statement at Nofziger's federal trial on charges of lobbying improprieties, attorney E. Lawrence Barcella told jurors that the law prohibits lobbying by a former government official only on matters of "direct and substantial interest" to his former agency.
Barcella argued that Nofziger, after resigning as President Reagan's political director in 1982, had lobbied for an electric motor manufacturer, an aircraft firm and a maritime union on issues that were "not that big a deal" to the White House. He urged jurors to "put things in proper perspective."
'Earned the Retirement Fund'
Assistant independent counsel Lovida A. Coleman Jr., however, declared in her opening statement that the 63-year-old Nofziger, in cashing in on his longtime association with Reagan and key White House aides, had "finally earned the retirement fund that he failed to save for previously."
Nofziger has been indicted on four felony counts and Mark A. Bragg, his business partner who is being tried with him, is charged with aiding and abetting one of the counts.
The trial, which heard its first two witnesses and is expected to last a month, is the first direct test of the 1978 Ethics in Government Act. Michael K. Deaver, another former White House aide and friend of Nofziger, was investigated for similar ethics law violations but was tried and convicted instead last month on related perjury charges.
At the outset of testimony, defense attorneys sought to demonstrate that the White House had little direct interest in one of Nofziger's lobbying activities: persuading the Navy to expand the use of civilian seamen on government ships.
Maritime Union Effort
On the stand was political consultant David A. Keene, who had hired Nofziger to help lobby the White House on behalf of a maritime union, the Marine Engineers Beneficial Assn.
Under questioning by Nofziger attorney Robert S. Plotkin, Keene said that the "civilian manning" issue was just one of many being pushed by the union and that the White House was doing little more than paying it lip service.
The President supported "the concept," Keene said, but action was being blocked in the Pentagon.
"The decisions about civilian manning were being made by the Navy?" Plotkin asked.
"The decisions were made there," the witness answered.
But under questioning by Coleman, an assistant to independent counsel James C. McKay, Keene acknowledged that the lobbyists' ultimate goal was "to get to the man who is commander in chief."
The prosecution submitted as evidence a letter written by Nofziger to union President Jesse Calhoun in August, 1982, thanking him for supporting a Reagan tax bill.
Nofziger, who had taken time off from his lobbying business to help Reagan win passage of the measure, sent a copy of the letter--central to one of the conflict-of-interest counts against him--to three top White House aides with this typed notation:
"He (Calhoun) has been trying to get action on civilian manning for naval ships without result. He has been supportive of all the President's endeavors, including the last one. Why not help our friends?"