Sheldon Silver, Bob McDonnell, and the Sorry State of Public Corruption Law

The Supreme Court’s Bob McDonnell decision claimed its highest-profile casualty last week. On July 13 the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit threw out the corruption convictions of Sheldon Silver, the former Speaker of the New York State General Assembly. The court ruled that, in light of McDonnell, Silver’s jury was not properly instructed on what constitutes an “official act” in a corruption case.

Silver is not out of the woods yet; he may well be convicted again after a new trial. But his case does highlight how much easier it is in the post-McDonnell era for public officials to sell government access to the highest bidder.

Regular readers know I’ve written extensively, and critically, about McDonnell. By adopting an artificially narrow definition of “official act,” the Court in McDonnell cleared the way for public officials to enrich themselves through secret gifts and payments. The Silver case highlights the safe harbors McDonnell creates for corrupt behavior and the sorry state of public corruption law.

Sheldon Silver

Facts of the Silver Case

Sheldon Silver was first elected to the New York State Assembly in 1976, representing much of lower Manhattan. He was elected Speaker in 1994 and held that position until he resigned in 2015. As Speaker, he was one of the most powerful politicians in the state.

In 2015 the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (then headed by the recently-fired Preet Bharara) indicted Silver. The charges were based on two different corruption schemes.

In the first, the government charged that Silver agreed to do political favors for Dr. Robert Taub, a physician and researcher at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital who specialized in mesothelioma. Silver obtained state grants worth $500,000 to support Dr. Taub’s research, introduced a state resolution commending Dr. Taub, worked to help secure jobs for his children, and did other favors for him.

In return, and to curry favor with Silver, Dr. Taub regularly referred mesothelioma patients who needed legal representation to a law firm with which Silver was affiliated. Silver received a percentage of any legal fees that resulted. Over a ten-year period, Silver earned about $3 million from Dr. Taub’s referrals.

The second scheme involved two major New York real estate developers. Over a number of years Silver took actions in the state legislature to benefit the developers on issues related to real estate taxes and rent legislation. In return, the developers sent tax-related work to another law firm that also had an arrangement with Silver. These referrals resulted in nearly another $1 million in fees for Silver.

In short, the government charged that Silver enriched himself to the tune of about $4 million through these referral schemes, which were not disclosed to the public. In return, he used the considerable powers of his office to benefit those providing the referrals.

The charges against Silver included honest services fraud and Hobbs Act extortion under color of official right. These were also two of the primary statutes used in the McDonnell indictment. Both charges, which are essentially bribery by another name, are commonly used in public corruption cases.

Bob and Maureen McDonnell

Bob and Maureen McDonnell

The Bob McDonnell Decision

Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife Maureen were convicted on multiple counts of corruption in 2014. Prosecutors charged that the two accepted more than $175,000 in secret gifts and loans from businessman Jonnie Williams. In return, Williams sought to have the McDonnells promote his company’s dietary supplement, Anatabloc, within the Virginia government.

In exchange for the gifts, McDonnell introduced Williams to Virginia health researchers and arranged meetings for him with other government employees. He also held a product launch event for Anatabloc at the Virginia Governor’s mansion, attended by other state employees and health officials.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit unanimously upheld the McDonnell convictions. But in June 2016 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed.

Bribery requires a quid pro quo, an exercise of government power in exchange for something of value. There was no doubt Williams had showered the McDonnells with secret gifts that satisfied the quid side of the equation. But the Supreme Court ruled that in a federal corruption case the quo agreed to by a public official must fit a specific definition of an “official act.” McDonnell’s actions, the Court concluded, did not rise to that level.

The McDonnell Court held that an official act must be a “decision or action on any question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy” that is or may be pending before the public official. It must be specific and focused, and involve a “formal exercise of government power” similar to a lawsuit before a court or a hearing before an agency. The public official must take an action “on” that matter, such as taking steps to resolve it somehow or pressuring another to do so.

Merely arranging a meeting or holding an event, the Court held, does not constitute an official act. These are simply routine political courtesies and interactions with constituents, not decisions or actions on a particular matter or controversy. If they could form the basis of a corruption case, the Court said, politicians would be unable to perform routine services for any supporter without fearing a potential criminal prosecution.

Timing Is Everything

The McDonnell case was on appeal when Silver went to trial, but the Supreme Court had not yet decided it. Silver’s attorneys requested a narrow definition of “official act” similar to the one argued for by McDonnell. Consistent with Second Circuit law at the time, the trial judge rejected this request. The judge told the jury that official acts included anything the public official did “under the color of official authority.”

As the Court of Appeals noted, this was completely correct at the time. The trial court and prosecutors could not be faulted for the instruction. But the McDonnell decision, which came down just a few weeks after Silver was sentenced, changed the rules.

In light of McDonnell, Silver was convicted based on a broader definition of “official act” that is no longer the law. The Court of Appeals noted that some of the things Silver did, such as obtaining state grants or introducing official resolutions in the House, could still quality as official acts after McDonnell. But other things included in the indictment, such as writing letters or attending meetings on behalf of his benefactors, would not.

It was impossible for the Court of Appeals to be certain which of Silver’s actions the jury actually relied upon, or how they would have viewed those actions if they had been instructed consistent with the McDonnell holding. That meant it was possible Silver was convicted for political favors that would not meet McDonnell’s definition of official acts and so would not be a crime. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals vacated the convictions and ordered a new trial to allow a properly instructed jury to consider the evidence.

The Post-McDonnell World

The Silver case provides a good case study of the state of public corruption law in the post-McDonnell world. Silver received about $4 million in secret benefits from individuals and companies that were seeking his help in his official capacity. Whether these corrupt deals were actually criminal has now been cast into doubt by the McDonnell case.

McDonnell and his supporters argued that his convictions risked criminalizing routine political courtesies and constituent services for those who support a politician. Such interactions are indeed an integral part of politics. And as long as we have a system of privately funded campaigns, politicians inevitably will respond to their supporters.

But Silver was not simply acting on behalf of routine political supporters — individuals who gave him campaign contributions or helped him raise legal contributions from others. Like Governor McDonnell, Silver was receiving personal benefits that went into his own pocket. Those gifts were secret, not publicly disclosed for the voters to see.

The essence of corruption is politicians acting not for the good of those they are elected to represent but in order to enrich themselves. Corrupt politicians abuse the trust of their public office by acting not on behalf of all their constituents but on behalf of those who are secretly paying them off. And access to the corridors of power becomes simply another commodity available to those willing and able to pay.

By its obsessive focus on a narrow and overly legalistic definition of “official acts,” the McDonnell Court missed the corruption forest for the trees. The key to corruption is not the precise nature of what the politician does. It’s the overall corrupt relationship, including whether support is public or secret, whether it is within any applicable legal limits, and whether it goes to the politician’s campaign or into his or her personal bank account. McDonnell imposes precise limitations on the quo side of a bribery transaction, while ignoring the overall corrupt relationship that allows a public official to secretly profit from his or her position.

The original jury instructions in Silver’s case embodied this concept: corruption may be found when there are secret payoffs to a politician in exchange for any actions done “under the color of official authority.” There are many things done under the color of official authority that do not meet the McDonnell definition of “official act.” But regardless of how large the personal benefit or how corrupt and secret the relationship, sale of those political favors is now outside the reach of federal corruption law.

This is the unfortunate result of the McDonnell case. The wealthy and connected are free to keep politicians in their back pockets through secret, personal gifts. In return, those politicians may provide political favors, grease the wheels of government, and provide access to government power. They are free to skate right up the “official act” line, personally enriching themselves through their public office, while the general public is kept in the dark.

It’s Not Over for Silver

It’s important to recognize that the Second Circuit did not find the evidence against Silver was insufficient, just that the jury was not properly instructed. The United States Attorney’s Office promptly announced that it intends to re-try the case. Former U.S. Attorney Bharara Tweeted that the evidence was strong and he expects Silver to be convicted again after a new trial.

The case on retrial will certainly be more challenging for the government. The universe of actions that may qualify as “official acts” has been substantially narrowed. Some of Silver’s actions fall outside of the statute of limitations, and that may be an issue in the new trial as well. The Court of Appeals also suggested that some of Silver’s actions, even if they did amount to official acts, might have been so insubstantial that a jury would not find they satisfied the quo requirement for a corrupt relationship. That defense argument will likely be a focus of the new trial as well.

Silver clearly won the battle in the Second Circuit. It remains to be seen whether he ultimately will win the war. But there’s no doubt the McDonnell decision has made rooting out and prosecuting public corruption significantly more challenging.

That’s the true legacy of Bob McDonnell: making life easier for corrupt politicians everywhere.

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You can read more of my commentary on the McDonnell case here:

Supreme Court Narrows Federal Bribery Law in a Win for Bob McDonnell

The Bob McDonnell Case May Have Been Won Months Before Trial

Bob McDonnell’s New Trial Motion and the Definition of “Official Act”

Bob McDonnell, Bribery, and “Official Acts” – Part II

Yes, Colluding With Russians to Interfere with the Election Is a Crime

The Special Counsel and several Congressional committees are investigating Russian interference with the 2016 election and the possible involvement of Trump campaign officials. The investigations are in their early stages, and it’s not yet clear whether any collusion took place. But some have suggested that even if it did, it would not be criminal.

Fox News commentator Brit Hume recently made this claim on Fox News Sunday. When one of the panelists noted that a grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia was conducting a criminal investigation, Hume interrupted:

But what crime? Can anybody identify the crime? Collusion, while it would be obviously alarming and highly inappropriate for the Trump campaign, of which there is no evidence by the way, of colluding with the Russians — it’s not a crime.

Hume was echoing a claim made by other Fox News pundits and supporters of the president. They imply the investigations must be politically motivated because collusion with Russians to interfere with our election, even if it did take place, would not be criminal.

No one knows yet what the various investigations will reveal. It’s certainly possible that no criminal misconduct will be found. But it’s wrong to suggest that criminal law is not even implicated here. If Trump campaign officials actively worked with Russians seeking to influence the outcome of the election, there are a number of potential criminal violations.

Collusion is like criminal conspiracy, a partnership in crime

The Most Likely Charge: Criminal Conspiracy 

Collusion is defined as a secret agreement to cooperate in some dishonest endeavor. This sounds a lot like criminal conspiracy, which prohibits agreements to pursue a criminal end. And indeed, the potential charge that most clearly applies to the Russian collusion allegations is the federal conspiracy statute, 18 U.S.C. § 371.

Section 371 prohibits two kinds of conspiracies: conspiracy to commit any offense against the United States and conspiracy to defraud the United States. Both theories potentially apply to any Russian collusion. The nature of a conspiracy charge makes it particularly appropriate for these allegations.

In a conspiracy case the offense is the agreement itself – the partnership in crime. A defendant must join the agreement with the intent to further its criminal objectives. But a defendant need not personally commit the crime that is the object of the conspiracy. In other words, it’s a crime to conspire to help another person commit an offense even if you don’t commit it yourself.

You also can conspire to help someone else commit a crime that you couldn’t possibly commit yourself – for example, because the statute doesn’t apply to you. The Supreme Court recently affirmed this principle in Ocasio v. United States, a case I wrote about here.

Finally, a conspiracy does not have to be successful. Conspiracy is a separate offense independent of the underlying object of the conspiracy. If the crime you conspire to commit is never carried out, for whatever reason, you can still be prosecuted for the conspiracy itself.

These features of conspiracy law have some obvious implications for any investigation of Russian collusion. For example, if Trump officials conspired to help Russians interfere with the election, they could be liable for conspiracy even if only the Russians did the actual interfering.

Similarly, if Trump officials conspired to help Russians violate bans on foreign involvement in U.S. campaigns, they could be liable for that conspiracy even though they were not foreign nationals and could not have committed the crime themselves.

Finally, because a conspiracy charge does not require proof that the conspiracy was successful, it would not require prosecutors to prove that any attempted interference actually impeded the election or affected the outcome.

Conspiracy to Defraud the United States

Section 371 prohibits conspiracies to defraud the United States “in any manner or for any purpose.” Typically, to defraud means to use dishonest methods to deprive someone of money or property. Using traditional mail or wire fraud to charge that the public was defrauded of its right to a fair election therefore would be problematic, because the intangible right to a fair election is not “property.”

But for purposes of Section 371 conspiracies to defraud the U.S.,  fraud has a different and broader meaning. In 1924 in Hammerschmidt v. United States  the Supreme Court held that conspiracy to defraud the U.S. includes schemes “to interfere with or obstruct one of its lawful government functions by deceit, craft, or trickery, or at least by means that are dishonest.” A conspiracy to defraud the U.S. under 371 does not need to result in a loss of money or property by the federal government.

This theory is often used to charge schemes that involve disguising transactions to evade some government regulatory program, or hiding assets to thwart the IRS. Individuals can be guilty of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. even if their underlying conduct, standing alone, would not be illegal. They can also be found guilty even if prosecutors can’t prove that the government lost money as a result.

Running a free and fair Presidential election is a core lawful function of the federal government. Any agreement to secretly and dishonestly attempt to interfere with a federal election would fall squarely within section 371’s prohibition on conspiracies to defraud the United States.

This theory has been used in election fraud cases in the past. For example, in the 1990’s there was a scandal involving China’s attempts to promote its interests within the U.S. government and potentially influence the 1996 presidential election. Charlie Trie, a Chinese-American with ties to the Clintons, was convicted for violating various campaign finance rules by exceeding legal contribution amounts and concealing the true identity of donors. Among the charges in his indictment: conspiracy to defraud the U.S. under Section 371 by impairing and impeding the legitimate functions of the Federal Election Commission.

Conspiracy to Commit an Offense Against the United States 

Section 371 also prohibits conspiracies to commit any offense against the United States. This applies to conspiracies to violate any criminal statute. The United States government does not need to be the victim of the intended crime.

Russian interference with the election reportedly involved hacking the Democratic National Committee computers and possibly other computer systems (including those run by state election officials). Breaking into computer systems without authorization violates 18 U.S.C. § 1030, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The CFAA criminalizes a wide range of activities involving hacking or other unauthorized access to and theft of information from private and government computers. Any conspiracy to engage in such hacking could be charged as a conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States.

Suppose, for example, Trump campaign officials agreed to somehow assist Russian hackers who were gaining unauthorized access to the DNC and other computers. That agreement could constitute a conspiracy to violate the CFAA, and could be prosecuted under Section 371. Because the crime is the conspiracy, Trump campaign officials could be charged even if the Russians did all of the actual hacking. The Russians also could be charged with violating the CFAA itself, but both the Russians and the Trump campaign officials who assisted them could be charged with conspiracy.

Conspiracy to impede the FEC could violate 18 USC 371

Conspiracy to Violate Election Laws

Another possible conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States would be conspiracy to violate federal election laws. I’m no authority on election law so I’m not going to venture very far here. But if there is a potential criminal violation of election laws, then campaign officials could conspire with Russian individuals to violate that law.

Election law experts have suggested these facts could violate prohibitions on foreign contributions to our elections. For example,  52 U.S.C.§ 30121 outlaws election contributions and donations by foreign nationals. It may be that activities by Russian individuals, such as stealing and then releasing emails damaging to the Clinton campaign, could be characterized as contributing something of value to the Trump campaign.

If Russians violated the law against foreign contributions and Trump campaign officials conspired to help them do so, the campaign officials could be guilty of a conspiracy to violate that election law. Again, this is true even though they were not foreign nationals and so could not violate that law directly.

Aiding and Abetting

Title 18, § 2 of the U.S. Code provides that anyone who “aids, abets, counsels, command, induces or procures” the commission of a crime can be found guilty of committing the crime themselves. This criminal law theory of aiding and abetting is also potentially relevant to the Russian collusion allegations.

The theory would be quite similar to the conspiracy charge, but with less focus on proving the criminal agreement. If the evidence revealed that Trump or his campaign officials asked or encouraged the Russians to interfere with the election or assisted them in any way, they potentially could be charged as aiders and abettors. Potential charges could include aiding and abetting a violation of the CFAA or of federal election law.

Accessory After the Fact and Misprision

Suppose Trump campaign officials got involved with Russian hackers only after the hacking was already completed, and worked with them on things like timing the release of certain emails. Conspiracy to violate the CFAA might not be a viable charge, because you can’t conspire to commit a crime that is already completed.

At that point a couple of other options would come into play. Accessory after the Fact, 18 U.S.C. § 3, punishes anyone who knows a crime against the U.S. has been committed and then “receives, relieves, comforts or assists the offender in order to hinder or prevent his apprehension, trial or punishment.” Anyone who worked with Russian hackers to help them conceal their activities and avoid detection or apprehension could be considered an accessory.

A related charge, Misprision of a Felony, 18 U.S.C. § 4, punishes anyone who has actual knowledge of a felony that has been committed against the U.S. and “does not as soon as possible make known the same to some judge or other person in civil or military authority.” Again, if Trump campaign officials got involved with Russian hackers after the hacking was completed and cooperated with them rather than reporting the hacking, misprision would be a potential charge.

Yes, Collusion Can Be Criminal

Once again, for the record: I’m not saying any of these crimes took place. I’m not suggesting that anyone will be charged, or should be charged. As with any criminal case, everything is going to depend on the facts and what evidence the government can present. But it’s simply nonsense to claim there is no basis here for a criminal investigation.

Some have suggested this idea is being floated as a trial balloon by the Trump administration to gauge the public reaction. It’s akin to the argument that the president couldn’t obstruct justice because, well, he’s the president. The apparent implication is that no matter what went on with the Russians or any attempts to thwart the FBI investigation, the investigations are just a political “witch hunt.” Nothing criminal to see here, folks, move along now.

We don’t know what the investigation will ultimately reveal. But we should dispense with the idea that colluding with Russian individuals to influence the outcome of our Presidential election would not be a crime. If the evidence is there, federal prosecutors have plenty of tools with which to build a case.

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