Shortly after 10 o'clock this morning, Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney William L. Cowhig will enter the court-room where he has long prosecuted defendants in criminal cases and watch as the jury selection process begins in his own bribery trial.
Cowhig, 53, a lifelong resident of the city he has served as chief prosecutor since 1973, is accused of taking $32,000 in cash in exchange for protecting Dirgham Salahi, director of the Montessori School of Alexandria Inc., whose bingo games grossed nearly $500,000 annually.
The Aug. 3 indictment of Cowhig, for years in good standing with the city's conservative legal community, brought tears to the eyes of his staunchest defenders, many of whom have known him since childhood. Cowhig is the stepson of the late Judge James Colasanto of Alexandria and the nephew by marriage of Alexandria City Council member Nicholas A. Colasanto.
Cowhig, regarded by current and former associates in the commonwealth attorneys office as a genial prosecutor with a knack for hiring smart young assistants and giving them free rein, also must stand trial early next year on separate charges of illegal gambling in connection with bingo games he allegedly ran.
Before an Alexandria city grand jury handed up its indictment, officials said Cowhig had been a focus of interest of a parallel federal grand jury probing allegations of official corruption, gambling, and illegal massage parlor operations in the city.
Regardless of the outcome of today's trial, the indictment, subsequent legal filings and news reports are expected to have an impact on Alexandria greater than the innocence or guilt of one man.
"The public will be much less complacent about the way its business is conducted by public officials" if Cowhig is convicted, said one Virginia legislator, who declined to let his name be used. "There will be a much greater interest by people in knowing how and why decisions are made than there is now. People will be less willing to accept on face value the integrity of their elected officials."
Charles Beatley, who is challenging incumbent Mayor Frank E. Mann in next spring's city election, has criticized Mann for his public support of Cowhig shortly after the indictments were announced.
The allegations against Cowhig also have led in part to the proposed revision of Virginia's bingo law. State Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. (R-Alexandria) said last week that the bill approved by a joint Senate and House of Delegates committee would repeal the current law, which is widely regarded as too vague and uneforceable.
Mitchell said there was "no question" that Alexandria's problems with bingo have "helped mold the bill."
Additionally, the allegations are seen as contributing to the recent failure at the polls of a bill that would have authorized pari-mutuel betting in Virgnia.
"The feeling I found around the state was that if these things can happen with a game played mainly by grandmothers and old ladies, imagine what might happen if you legalize horse betting," one opponent of the bill said shortly before the Nov. 7 election.
Four trial attorneys have volunteered their time and resources in defending Cowhig - Louis Koutoulakos, Leonard Sussholz, James M. Lowe and William Moffitt. "We are doing this without any compensation of any kind because we believe absolutely in Bill Cowhig," Sussholz said recently.