The dog days of August: The news is lackluster; the shows on television are reruns. Even the show in the federal courthouse here is a rerun.
The trial of Richard William Miller, the first FBI agent charged with espionage, is recycling evidence from the trial of Soviet emigres Svetlana and Nikolai Ogorodnikov, which was 10 weeks old last June when they entered surprise guilty pleas to charges of conspiring with Miller.
Although there is a different defendant, the story is the same and, among court-watchers, it has lost some of its punch in the retelling: Miller, 48, a 20-year veteran of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, met Svetlana Ogorodnikov, 35, in May 1984 after she made a telephone call to his office.
Ignoring orders from the head of the foreign counterintelligence squad to initiate no contacts with her and to report any contact she made, Miller kept secret his frequent meetings with Ogorodnikova. The relationship quickly became intimate, and the pair once took a weekend trip to San Francisco, where Ogorodnikova visited the Soviet consulate.
Miller, through his attorneys, does not dispute the facts. But he has testified that he did it in hopes of infiltrating a Soviet spy ring and salvaging his failing career. The government contends that Miller's motive was sex and the $65,000 in gold and cash Ogorodnikova promised him in return for classified FBI documents.
Miller's attorneys, Stanley Greenberg and Joel Levine, are former federal prosecutors. Levine successfully prosecuted two young Californians who spied for the Soviet Union and gained fame through a book and film, "The Falcon and the Snowman."
In his three-hour opening statement, Greenberg assured the jury that he was not trying to embarrass his client, then described Miller as someone with "a far lower level of intelligence" than was required for his job on the FBI's foreign counterintelligence squad.
Referring to the actor who starred in television's "The FBI," Greenberg told the jury to "get this image of Efrem Zimbalist Jr. out of your mind and substitute it with Ralph Kramden -- without the humor." Ralph Kramden was the not-very-bright, fat, vain, bumbling but well-intentioned bus driver portrayed by Jackie Gleason in the 1950s television series "The Honeymooners."
But Miller, "in the most unconventional way possible," succeeded in a double-agent operation, Greenberg said, holding up a huge color photograph of Soviet KGB agent Alexandr Grishin, an unindicted conspirator in the case.
"The fish was on the hook. This was the fish," Greenberg said, waving the picture of Grishin, a vice-consul at the Soviet consulate in San Francisco and one of Ogorodnikova's contacts there.
U.S. Attorney Robert C. Bonner is heading the prosecution team in the first trial he has prosecuted personally since his appointment in early 1984. In contrast to Greenberg's intense, scrappy courtroom manner, Bonner addressed the jury more in the manner of a man sitting in his living room, telling friends the story of a rogue agent.
In Bonner's version, Miller is again a bumbler, but a bumbler who is also a longtime liar and cheat, a man "pursuing his own venal scheme and not the interests of the FBI or his country."
Much of the testimony so far has come from Miller's superiors and colleagues in the FBI's Los Angeles office.
One of the few witnesses in this trial who did not also testify in the Ogorodnikov trial was a woman who, as part of the prosecution's effort to underscore Miller's financial problems, related her difficulty in collecting payment for land she had sold him. During her testimony, her husband rose among the spectators and began to denounce Miller loudly.
The man was later held in contempt of court for his outburst and barred from the courthouse for the duration of the Miller trial. In some who have sat through both trials, his fate inspired a touch of envy.