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.
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.
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: