"THIS CASE is not about a bird. And it's not about illegal aliens," a defense attorney said yesterday in federal court.
Instead, attorney Mark Cedrone told jurors in his opening statement, "This is all about whether he told a lie."
The "he" refers to his client, Mikhail Zubialevich, who is on trial with co-defendants Nikolaos Frangos and George Capuzello.
The three men held varying positions as part of a work crew painting the double-decker Girard Point Bridge, which carries Interstate 95 across the Schuylkill in Philadelphia. The feds allege that on June 4, 2011, workers went into a restricted area of the bridge and disturbed nesting peregrine falcons there, causing them to abandon their nest, leaving behind an egg that failed to hatch.
The falcons are protected under federal law and are on the state's endangered-species list.
Frangos was a principal of the Liberty-Alpha Joint Venture, which had a contract with the state Department of Transportation to refurbish the bridge. He was not on the bridge that day.
Capuzello was a paint foreman and the acting supervisor on the bridge that day, and Zubialevich was a worker.
The three men are not charged with any bird-related offenses, but rather with lying to the feds and harboring an illegal immigrant - another worker who was on the bridge and who had walked in the restricted area.
That worker, Walter Morgan, also known as Walter Eduardo Morgan Gomez, was an illegal immigrant from Honduras. He has pleaded guilty to an offense related to the death of the falcon egg in the nest and is cooperating with the government.
On June 4, 2011, Capuzello had asked Zubialevich and Morgan to carry a hose on a catwalk under the bridge, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy Potts said yesterday in her opening statement. The two were working in the restricted area near the falcons' nest and disturbed it, the feds contend.
Evidence of Morgan in the restricted area was caught on camera by a bird monitor, Art McMorris, hired by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, who was assigned to observe the falcons on the bridge, Potts said.
When Capuzello learned of this, he knew he'd been caught red-handed, not only because a worker was photographed in the restricted area, but because that worker was an illegal immigrant, Potts said. But, she said, the photos showed only Morgan's back and from his knees down.
The feds contend that Capuzello and Frangos came up with a plan to bring in another worker, Joseph Warren, to pretend that it was he - not Morgan - who was walking in the restricted area.
Zubialevich also was brought in to lie about this to federal authorities, the feds contend.
Defense attorneys, however, said their clients had no idea that Morgan was an illegal immigrant and attacked the credibility of Morgan and Warren, who will be testifying for the government under a grant of immunity.
As for the birds, Bill DeStefano, Frangos' attorney, said McMorris had taken 78 pictures that day that showed a falcon in the nest undisturbed by the workers.