Crime & Courts
St. Petersburg lawyer found not guilty of bribery charges
TAMPA - A St. Petersburg lawyer was acquitted Monday of charges he tried to bribe a bankruptcy trustee to get business for his personal injury practice.
Jurors found Vincent C. Rowley not guilty of bribery and lying to the FBI about why he gave trustee Angela Esposito $3,000.
"We're very thankful for the jury's verdict," said defense attorney John Fitzgibbons. "It ends a seven-year ordeal for Mr. Rowley and his family. ... We felt that the evidence that the payment of money to the ... trustee had nothing to do with any official acts in her capacity as a public official."
No one disputed that Rowley gave Esposito an envelope stuffed with cash wrapped inside a newspaper.
But the defense argued successfully that Rowley was merely giving Esposito a fee for referring another case to him that had nothing to do with bankruptcy.
The case started one day in August 2006 when Rowley invited Esposito to lunch at a downtown restaurant.
According to the prosecution the two engaged in small talk about a recent decline in personal bankruptcy filings before Rowley tried to give Esposito an envelope full of cash. Esposito refused to take the money and after lunch reported what happened to her supervisor, and the FBI was called.
Agents monitored a series of phone calls, and Rowley later showed up unannounced at Esposito's office and gave her the envelope with the money inside a newspaper.
In closing statements Monday morning, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Monk called the transaction "sleazy" and "underhanded."
But Fitzgibbons told jurors the prosecution was trying to make something out of "a bad case." The defense lawyer said the FBI had tried to investigate what agents thought was pervasive corruption in the bankruptcy court system but came up empty.
Fitzgibbons called Rowley "a decent man (with a) decent family" who was "well regarded by all of the trustees." He noted his client offered to take a lie detector test when confronted by the FBI, but agents declined his offer.
Monk said Rowley, as a lawyer, knew if he flunked the test, the results would not be admissible in court.
The defense maintained during the trial that the payment was to thank Esposito for suggesting the family of a woman killed in a Pinellas County accident hire him.
That case was settled for $295,000 weeks before the restaurant encounter, Fitzgibbons said. Rowley's fee was $78,000. In Florida, lawyers who refer cases to other lawyers are routinely paid referral fees, Fitzgibbons said, although it is considered improper to pay referral fees to non-lawyers.
Reporter José Patiño Girona contributed to this report.