Last June in Manhattan, at his arraignment on charges of extortion, racketeering, fraud, perjury and a lot of other stuff in connection with the Wedtech scandal, Rep. Mario Biaggi made his plea. As The New York Times described it, he "stood up shakily, stamped his white-handled cane on the floor and, almost shouting, said, 'Absolutely not guilty!' " The opposing lawyers rolled their eyes, the judge chided Biaggi for inventing a "new plea," and I, reading about it at home, tossed my newspaper and groaned. Histrionic Braying of One's Innocence is a crucial part of the Ritual of Wiggle -- the steps politicians use to worm out of trouble when they get caught being bad -- and Biaggi's supposedly "dramatic" plea left me cold. I mean, here's a man facing a possible 181 years in prison and a jumbo $8.9 million fine, and that's the best he can do? At the very least he should have fainted or cried, though I'd have recommended that he wrap his torso in barbed wire, rip open his shirt in court and shout, "Perhaps this, at last, will satisfy my accusers!" Anyway, the point is this: With all those chips on the table, there's no place for subtlety or hedging on Biaggi's part.

Which is not to say he hasn't been trying to use the Wiggle steps to his advantage. As we discussed last week, Biaggi has already been tried in a separate case -- one not related to Wedtech -- in which he accepted two free vacations from a political crony, allegedly in exchange for favors. Primarily through a bravura application of Step 4 (Use the "stranger in paradise" routine: You can't help it if good-hearted friends shower you with gifts), he turned a potential 32-year sentence into a 2 1/2-year wrist slap, stayed pending appeal.

Not bad, but in the more serious Wedtech case, Biaggi's fortunes will depend on a more balanced performance, and so far he's been spending all his time on Wiggle Step 5: Pick a scapegoat; attack your accusers. With his constant refrain that someone is out to undo him, Biaggi's in danger of becoming a Johnny One Note. Naturally, he often takes the press to task for printing the lies and innuendo spewed by his tormentors, but he doesn't stop there. In June, he suggested that the Justice Department might be pursuing him "to shift attention away from their superior, Attorney General Meese." On his indictment day, he lashed out at the enemy witnesses -- former Wedtech officials who pleaded guilty and agreed to testify -- saying, "The prosecution accepts at face value the statements of a pantheon of known liars and convicted felons, all desperate to save their skins!" Okay, Mario. You've established that everybody from Zeus to Judge Parker is working overtime to rain on your parade. Move on.

This brings us to Wiggle Step 6: When the situation deteriorates rapidly, try a combination of these techniques: feigned illness, seclusion, hospitalization and religious reawakening. Emerge flanked by a preacher and your wife, and state your determination to overcome your problems and get back to work. To put it in football coaches' terms, this one is so key. We in the masses are always happy to forgive our superiors if they'll just put on a dramatic show of fall and redemption. A celebrity whose career is tailspinning knows that a sure-fire way to engineer a comeback is: Declare yourself a drug addict, check into the Betty Ford Center and emerge a month later cured and ready for the magazine profiles. This works for pols, too, but Biaggi is bungling it by sending mixed signals that are damaging his act.

Consider this chaotic sequence of maneuvers that occurred during the earlier Vacationgate trial. Though Biaggi beat most of the rap, those vacations have caused nagging image problems for him because he was traveling with a not-his-wife female friend while his real wife was at home, seriously ill. In response to these nettlesome facts, Biaggi's defense lawyer portrayed him (in the words of the presiding judge) as an "aging Romeo unable to control his urges." Then, during sentencing proceedings, he reversed field and dubbed him a "devoted husband" who should not be imprisoned because his wife needs his care. Unfortunately, the judge found this whopper a bit too large to swallow, and Biaggi actually received a prison sentence, although it was a light one that will probably evaporate during a long appeals process. That should have been his cue to collapse into a wheezing heap of piteous humanity and get stretcher-toted to the nearest dry-out center. After that, we wouldn't see his face again until trial day, when he'd be armed with a new haircut and a 40-pound Bible. Sadly, though, he's chosen to go with an "I will survive" bit. After his sentencing (during which the judge compared him to a "fallen Greek hero"), he declared: "I haven't fallen! I've been smitten, but I haven't fallen!" Since then he's remained in the House of Representatives, not voting, but staunchly refusing to be driven from his seat by his enemies. Talk about your ill-timed hubris!

Fortunately for Biaggi, it's not too late to change his clumsy ways (the Wedtech trial is scheduled for January), and there are many role models he can emulate. The day after he appeared onstage with stripper Fanne Foxe at Boston's Pilgrim Theater, Rep. Wilbur Mills checked into Bethesda Naval Hospital for exhaustion and alcoholism treatment. When reports about his 1977 visit to a Des Moines massage parlor hit the papers, Sen. Roger Jepsen said yes, it happened, but that was before he'd made a "permanent commitment to Christ." Reps. Mills, Dan Flood, John Jenrette, Ozzie Myers and Frederick Richmond were just some of the congressmen who, like Michael Deaver today, blamed their behavior on boozing and/or drugs.

Mario, the time to break down and go into seclusion is now. And when you come back out, you might consider using a modified version of the speech used by right-wing Rep. Robert Bauman after he was arrested on charges of soliciting sex from a 16-year-old boy. My alterations are in brackets: "{During the period in which everything I'm accused of doing occurred, which, uh, I no longer remember}, my drinking problem reached the stage of acute alcoholism. With the help of my wife, preacher, doctor and AA {and many wunnerful, wunnerful people too numerous to mention}, my alcoholism is now fully under control and sobriety restored. Equally important, I have confessed my sins and am in the state of grace and will remain so with the help of God. {So, like, leave me alone already.}"

If that doesn't help, there's always Step 7 -- Claim constitutional immunity -- and the all-important Step 8, which lists several formalities to be observed in one's trial, the final being: If convicted, abandon all dignity and beg for mercy. Recall the inspirational example of Rep. Charles Diggs Jr.? Convicted of 29 counts of mail fraud and other charges, he told the judge that he'd "prefer lecturing high school students" to going to jail, partly on the grounds that imprisonment would be "a painful blow" to his mom. Sniff. He served less than a year and was released in time for Mother's Day. ::