I went to see District Attorney Bill Turner’s cross examination of P. David Romei Tuesday afternoon. It was brutal. Romei, already worn out by some eight hours of direct examination over two days, sparred in a spirited fashion with the DA, but Turner won every round on points, if not by knockout. The twelve jurors and two alternates seated across the small courtroom could not have failed to note the one-sided nature of the bout. A first-time felony defendant is no match for a prosecutor with several decades of courtroom experience, but Romei contributed to his own demise with a series of gaffes and failed attempts at self-effacement. It didn’t help that the case against him appeared devastating.
I couldn’t help but make a fleeting comparison between Romei and another luminary who seemed so out of place in this community. I could close my eyes and imagine Coach Fran, a wine sipper in a beer-guzzling town, being cross-examined by football inquisitors. Both Romei and Franchione were outsiders who assumed lofty positions in Aggieland, and who never quite fit in. That’s where the reference ends. Dennis endured a minor scandal that brushed up against NCAA regulations, and some go so far as to say he released student medical information in violation of federal law. All of which would have been forgiven if he had won more games. He left A&M with a $2 million severance and may coach again at some place where he fits better. David brought a lot of art to the Brazos Valley, but arrogance and poor judgment will most assuredly ruin his professional future, more than likely cost him a felony conviction, and probably send him to prison.
In the opening round, Turner asked Romei how many years he had been affiliated with 501 (c) (3) charities. Fifteen, he answered. Having cast serious doubt upon David’s ignorance defense, the prosecutor then methodically ripped into the defendant’s practice of “laundering” contribution money by writing a personal check and then seeking reimbursement from the Arts Council. Didn’t he know gifts to politicians could endanger the Council’s tax-exempt status? Why “deceive” donors and taxpayers by masking the source of donations to charitable organizations? Why cook the books by assigning monthly cost overruns in one budget line item to another–even if the audited, year-end budget corrected the figures?
Then it got worse. Romei stated under direct examination that he never balanced his checkbook, but Turner produced a register that showed a balancing adjustment. Then he threw the knockout punch. Referring to a personal contribution to the A&M Foundation that Romei “forgot” to mail, but for which he received reimbursement, Turner produced bank statements that showed the deposit kept Romei’s account in the black and prevented overdrafts. “You needed that money, didn’t you?” Turner asked.
Part of Turner’s strategy was to damn Romei in the eyes of the jury by depicting the defendant as lofty, condescending, and dismissive of the taxpayers who had funded the Arts Council through grants from the city. David didn’t help himself with series of bizarre denials and transparent attempts at self-deprecation. At one point, when confronted with the charge that he used an Arts Council purchases to buy gasoline at local retail outlets, David said he didn’t know the meaning of the term: “convenience store.” Likewise, to his own lawyer on direct examination, he claimed to be ignorant of what “self-aggrandizement” meant. When he told Turner, after a blistering exchange, “I’m not smart enough to understand that,” Turner shot back: “But you’re a doctor!”
I talked to David for a few minutes between breaks. He’s obviously physically ill and disspirited, despite his feisty demeanor on the stand. He consulted infrequently with this lawyers. He had one female friend in the gallery; everybody else kept their distance, as if he were contaminated. He much older and considerably more frail than the sharp, engaging graduate student with whom I shared a seminar table almost a decade ago. I wish him the best, although I’m afraid things are going to get worse before they get better.
One thing is for sure. I’ll take care not to violate the law in Brazos County. I’d rather be shaking hands with Bill Turner at a Democratic campaign rally than have him prosecute me.