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Nofziger Judge Weighs Dismissal of One Count : He Questions Independent Counsel on Whether Meese Was Illegally Pressured on Army Pact

February 04, 1988|PAUL HOUSTON | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The judge at Lyn Nofziger's trial on charges of illegal lobbying hinted Wednesday that he may dismiss one of four counts against the former White House aide before defense attorneys begin presenting their side of the case to the jury today.

At a hearing, U.S. Dist. Judge Thomas A. Flannery extensively questioned independent counsel James C. McKay about whether he had proved a crucial element of the charge that Nofziger illegally pressured then-presidential counselor Edwin Meese III in 1982.

Flannery suggested evidence was scant that the White House had much of an existing interest in a proposed Army engine contract when Nofziger contacted Meese about it on behalf of scandal-ridden Wedtech Corp.

Prohibitions of Law

The Ethics in Government Act prohibits former government officials such as Nofziger from lobbying ex-colleagues only on matters of "direct and substantial interest" to their former agencies.

But Flannery appeared to be less responsive to defense pleas that the remaining counts also be dismissed on similar grounds. He said that he will rule today.

Besides the Meese contact in April, 1982, Nofziger is charged with illegally lobbying Meese deputy James E. Jenkins in May after Jenkins began energetically helping Wedtech win the $32-million contract. Nofziger's business partner, Mark A. Bragg, is accused of aiding and abetting Nofziger in writing a key letter to Jenkins.

Nofziger, who resigned as President Reagan's political director in January, 1982, also is charged in connection with lobbying former colleagues on behalf of an aircraft manufacturer and a labor union later that year.

After Wednesday's hearing, Nofziger expressed optimism that he would be cleared.

'I've Got Better Lawyers'

"I think I've got better lawyers," he exclaimed, tossing back his head in laughter.

When asked how he felt about friends such as Meese and Jenkins being called by prosecutors to testify against him, Nofziger said: "It must be tough on people who have been my friends for 10 or 20 years or longer to get up there and testify. I wouldn't want to do it."

Did Atty. Gen. Meese's testimony Tuesday, when Meese repeatedly said he had difficulty recalling key events in the case against Nofziger, hurt or help?

"It's hard to tell," Nofziger said. "I don't think he hurt. All a guy can do is get up and be honest."

Although he is facing the possibility of up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine on each of the charges, Nofziger has been generally relaxed and even jaunty during the nearly 4-week-old trial, invariably donning rumpled suits and neckties from his Mickey Mouse collection.

"I go by the approach that I am not a criminal," he explained. "I have not done anything wrong or unethical. It's not going to beat me down. I've been what I have been for 63 years."

Cites Little Interest

At the hearing, Nofziger attorney E. Lawrence Barcella argued there was little White House interest in the Wedtech contract before Nofziger began lobbying for it.

The previous year, Meese had taken a "sporadic interest" in the matter at the behest of another friend, and Pier Talenti, a $1-a-year volunteer on Nofziger's White House staff, had worked on it, Barcella said. "But that was hardly evidence of a direct and substantial interest," he added.

McKay countered that substantial White House interest was based on a highly publicized 1980 campaign promise by Reagan to revitalize the blighted South Bronx, where Wedtech proposed to manufacture small engines for the Army.

Flannery said that showed an interest only in the South Bronx, but not necessarily in Wedtech.

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