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Acquitted defendant says he felt an obligation to testify

John Christmas doesn't have the look of a gambler.

Soft-spoken and with a fashion sense that leans toward bow ties and white, V-neck boating sweaters, the 40-year-old lawyer instead has the look of a conservative, by-the-book government wonk – which many friends and associates say he is.But with his freedom and livelihood on the line, the former mayoral aide and City Hall insider rolled the dice, taking the stand in his own defense during the highly publicized political corruption trial in which he, Imam Shamsud-din Ali and businessman John Johnson were defendants.

Yesterday morning, after five days of jury deliberation, Christmas' gamble paid off.

Big time.

The only defendant to take the stand, he was also the only defendant found not guilty.

Standing in front of the federal courthouse at Sixth and Market Streets shortly after the jury delivered its verdicts, Christmas smiled, shook his head happily, and said he felt he had an obligation to testify.

“I felt like, as a public official, I had to,” said the former assistant to the chief of staff in Mayor Street's office.

Christmas, who is married with two small children, spent more than 10 years working in City Hall, first for the Law Department and then, starting in 2000, for the administration.

His position, he said, brought him authority and responsibility. He had authority working for the mayor, and he had a responsibility to the taxpayers of the city to explain his actions.

“If you're not comfortable with that, then you shouldn't go into government,” said the St. Joseph's University and Boston College Law School grad. “I wanted people to know I wasn't hiding anything. . . . I didn't do anything wrong.

And that is what he said on the witness stand.

“I was never involved in any conspiracy for any purpose. . . . Not in this case or at any other time,” Christmas said in denying from the stand the charges of mail fraud and conspiracy to commit mail fraud he faced.

For more than three hours, first during direct examination by his own lawyer, Brian McMonagle, and then during a grueling cross-examination by federal prosecutor Frank Labor, Christmas explained, repeated and elaborated on that defense.

He said his role in assisting Ali in obtaining a City Hall contract to collect delinquent property taxes was neither unusual nor criminal, but merely part of his job to help minority firms compete for government work.

McMonagle said the decision to testify was his client's call.

“His life was on the line,” said the highly regarded defense attorney whose blend of passion and common sense also appeared to have an impact on the jury during the eight-week trial.

“He's the best,” Christmas said of McMonagle.

Facing a possible prison sentence and certain loss of his license to practice law if convicted, Christmas said the decision to take the stand was not difficult. Nor did he consider it much of a gamble.

It was simply, he said, the right thing to do.

“There are lots of good and decent people who work in City Hall,” McMonagle said after he and his client embraced on the sidewalk outside the federal courthouse. “Today, one of them got his life back.”

Contact staff writer George Anastasia at 856-779-3846 or ganastasia@phillynews.com.