Update: Rod Blagojevich’s Original Sentence Unchanged at Resentencing

At a resentencing hearing today, U.S. District Judge James Zagel sentenced former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich to the same fourteen-year sentence the judge had originally imposed in 2011. Blagojevich (known as “Blago”) was convicted on eighteen felony counts of corruption based on various “pay to play” schemes involving his powers as governor, including a scheme where he tried to obtain money or a job in exchange for appointing the successor to former U.S. Senator from Illinois Barack Obama.

rod-blagojevich

Resentencing was necessary because five of Blagojevich’s convictions had been thrown out by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. The court of appeals concluded that the charges based on Blago’s scheme related to filling the Senate seat may have rested on an improper legal theory. Those charges were based in part on evidence that Blago had tried to trade that appointment for a favorable government job for himself; in other words, he would appoint a successor favored by Obama in exchange for a seat in President Obama’s cabinet. (That deal never came to pass because the President and his staff refused to agree.) But the court of appeals concluded that this kind of transaction, trading one political appointment for another, was simply political “log rolling” that takes place all the time and could not form the basis of a corruption conviction. (I wrote in more detail about the Seventh Circuit opinion in this post.)

Blagojevich had also hoped the Supreme Court might hear his case, particularly in light of the Court’s recent decision to accept review of and then reverse the corruption convictions of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. But those hopes were dashed when the high court declined to accept Blago’s appeal.

At the resentencing, Blago’s attorneys argued he should be released much earlier in light of the vacated convictions. But the government pointed out that even without those charges the sentencing guidelines would have called for the same sentence, based on the other corruption schemes for which he was convicted. In addition, although the court of appeals rejected one theory related to the attempted sale of the Senate seat, there had been plenty of evidence at trial concerning efforts by Blago to solicit other things of value in exchange for that appointment. Prosecutors argued that the fundamental picture concerning the nature of Blago’s misconduct had not changed. Judge Zagel apparently agreed.

So after four years of appeals, Blago is right back where he started: in prison until 2024.

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The Bob McDonnell Case May Have Been Won Months Before Trial

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned Bob McDonnell’s corruption convictions on June 27. The Court held that the actions McDonnell took in exchange for the secret gifts and loans he received from businessman Jonnie Williams did not constitute “official acts” within the meaning of federal bribery law. I’ve written here and here about why I think the Court’s decision is wrong. But in this post I’d like to examine a different aspect of the case: how a tactical move by the defense, months before trial, may well have been the key to McDonnell’s ultimate victory.

As I noted, the basis of the Supreme Court’s decision was its conclusion that McDonnell did not perform “official acts.” If you’ve been reading the commentary about the case for the past two years, you could be forgiven for thinking it was always clear that the definition of “official act” was the key issue. Virtually all media reports focused on the question of “official acts.” At trial, in the court of appeals, and in the Supreme Court, both sides agreed this was the relevant test. In its decision the Supreme Court simply noted, with no analysis, that both sides agreed the government was required to prove that McDonnell agreed to perform “official acts” in exchange for the bribes.

But in fact, it’s far from clear that this focus on “official acts” was the proper legal standard by which to judge McDonnell’s actions. That this became the central legal issue in the case is a testament to the skill of McDonnell’s defense team. By convincing both the prosecutors and the trial court that this was the correct legal standard, they may have won McDonnell’s case months before his trial even began.

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The Definition of “Official Act”

The Supreme Court began its analysis by stating: “The issue in this case is the proper interpretation of the term ‘official act.'” The definition of “official act” in question comes from the federal bribery statute, 18 U.S.C. §201.  Section 201(a)(3) provides:

the term “official act” means any decision or action on any question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy, which may at any time be pending, or which may by law be brought before any public official, in such official’s official capacity, or in such official’s place of trust or profit.

Under Section 201(b)(2)(A), a public official is guilty of bribery if he or she “corruptly demands, seeks, receives, accepts, or agrees to receive or accept” anything of value in exchange for being influenced in the performance of any such “official act.”

The Supreme Court agreed with McDonnell that this definition of “official act” envisions some formal exercise of government power; a public official making a decision or taking action on a particular question or matter. The bulk of the legal portion of the Court’s opinion is a rather dry analysis of the “official act” definition quoted above, with the Court using tools of statutory construction to decide what is meant by a “decision or action on” a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding, or controversy.”

The Court held that if all McDonnell agreed to do was introduce Williams to others in the Virginia government who might help him, or hold an event at the Governor’s mansion to promote Williams’ product, these were simply routine political courtesies and did not represent the kind of exercise of government power that this definition suggests. Because the jury was not properly instructed on the definition of “official act” as announced by the Court, the convictions were vacated and the case sent back to the lower courts.

This may all sound unremarkable, but for one fact: McDonnell was never charged with violating 18 U.S.C. §201. That statute applies only to bribery by federal public officials or those acting on behalf of the federal government. As a state governor acting on state matters, McDonnell was not covered. The really unusual thing about the McDonnell opinion is that it consists almost entirely of analysis of a statute that no one in the case was charged with violating.

The Charges in McDonnell’s Case

McDonnell was actually indicted for violating two different corruption statutes: Hobbs Act extortion under color of official right and honest services wire fraud. These are two of the most common vehicles for the federal prosecution of state or local corruption. The Supreme Court held, in Evans v. United States, that Hobbs Act extortion under color of official right is basically the equivalent of bribery. And in the landmark 2010 case of Skilling v. United States, the Supreme Court held that honest services fraud applies only to bribery and kickbacks.

Both the Hobbs Act and honest services fraud, therefore, may be used to prosecute bribery — but neither statute defines that term. From the beginning of the case, McDonnell’s defense team successfully argued that since these statutes don’t define bribery, courts should use the definition of bribery found in a different federal statute, 18 U.S.C. §201. And this led to the focus on whether McDonnell had performed “official acts” within the meaning of that law.

At first glance this argument seems reasonable: why not look to another federal statute for the definition of bribery under the Hobbs Act and honest services fraud? But as I argued in greater detail in this earlier post, using the Section 201 definition of bribery for purposes of these other statutes actually makes little sense.

In Skilling the Court said that honest services fraud applies to bribery – but it didn’t say “bribery as defined in 18 U.S.C. §201.” And upon reading Skilling it is clear that the Court had a broader, more general concept of bribery in mind. For example, honest services fraud applies to state and local public officials like McDonnell who would not be subject to bribery charges under § 201. It also applies to private sector bribery, such as an employee who violates his duty of honest services to his employer by accepting payments from a competitor to sell his employer’s secrets. Private sector bribery is not covered by 18 U.S.C. §201 and private individuals cannot, by definition, perform “official acts.” It cannot be that bribery for purposes of honest services fraud is equivalent to bribery as defined by 18 U.S.C. §201, because much of the bribery unquestionably covered by honest services fraud would not violate §201.

When the Skilling Court defined honest services fraud it looked to the broader universe of bribery law and drew upon many cases that would not have fallen under 18 U.S.C. §201. In fact, the Court expressly noted (in footnote 45) that honest services fraud, as it was defining it, reached well beyond the scope of 18 U.S.C. §201.

Similarly, Hobbs Act extortion under color of official right applies to bribery by state and local officials, who are not covered by Section 201. The definitions of Section 201 are therefore similarly inadequate to cover all of the conduct encompassed by Hobbs Act extortion.

The McDonnell case might also leave the impression that every instance of federal bribery under Section 201 involves “official acts” – but that too is incorrect. Section 201 defines three different ways to commit bribery, and only one of them involves official acts. Bribery is also committed by an official who accepts a thing of value in exchange for being induced to do or omit to do any act in violation of his or her official duty (18 U.S.C. §201(b)(2)(C)) or in exchange for agreeing to help commit a fraud against the United States (18 U.S.C. §201(b)(2)(B)). Even within the federal bribery statute itself, the crime of bribery is not limited by a focus only on whether an official performed “official acts.” Why should bribery for honest services fraud or the Hobbs Act be so limited?

The Essence of Bribery

Bribery is an ancient common-law crime that was around long before Congress attempted to define it in one statute. There is nothing magical about the definition in 18 U.S.C. §201, and as we’ve seen, that definition is inadequate to capture all cases covered by honest services fraud or Hobbs Act extortion. The key to bribery is the corrupt agreement to be influenced, or quid pro quo. It’s the influence component that is critical, more than the precise nature of the action taken. Bribery corrupts the political system because the actions of the public official are being altered for an improper purpose. The recipient of a bribe is influenced to act not in the best interests of all but rather to benefit the person who paid the bribe. Similarly, the bribe payer obtains political favors or exercises of power that are unavailable to the general public, thanks to a corrupt deal to reward the public official in exchange.

When defining bribery, the Supreme Court could have looked to many sources. For example, one standard authority, the Model Penal Code (§240.1), defines bribery as agreeing to accept “any pecuniary benefit as consideration for the recipient’s decision, opinion, recommendation, vote or other exercise of discretion as a public servant.” The heart of the crime is the same: the quid pro quo, exchange of something of value to influence an official’s discretionary action.  But the language is much more general than §201(a)(3) and does not include the specific focus on a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy.”

Other possible sources include other laws. In a case involving the Virginia governor it might make sense, for example, to consider the Virginia state bribery statute, since it was the citizens of Virginia to whom McDonnell owed a duty of honest services. Virginia law tracks the Model Penal Code and provides that a public official is guilty of bribery if he or she accepts any pecuniary benefit from another in exchange for being influenced in a “decision, opinion, recommendation, vote or other exercise of discretion as a public servant.” VA Code §18.2-447(2). This definition, particularly the references to the official making a “recommendation” or the “exercise of discretion,” seems clearly to cover some of the actions taken by McDonnell.

The Court in McDonnell also could have looked to the many other state and local bribery cases that historically have been prosecuted as honest services fraud. If it surveyed those cases it would have found a wide variety of state law definitions of bribery that do not include the restrictive “official act” definition of Section 201.

In short, there is no reason to believe that meeting the precise definition of “official act” in 18 U.S.C. §201 should be required in all federal bribery prosecutions under all statutes. Up until McDonnell, the Supreme Court had never held that the specific language of Section 201 applied in prosecutions of honest services fraud or Hobbs Act extortion. But thanks to the efforts of McDonnell’s defense team, by the time the case arrived at the Supreme Court everyone, including the Justices, simply assumed this was the correct standard.

How “Official Acts” Became the Focus

So how did the McDonnell case end up focusing on “official acts?” There is some suggestion in the early pleadings that this was not always a foregone conclusion. In a defense motion filed on January 21, 2014, the same day the indictment was returned, the defense said the government had suggested that bribery under honest services fraud and the Hobbs Act may not require proof of “official acts” as defined in 18 U.S.C. §201. (It’s unclear when and where the government may have made that argument; perhaps it was in pre-indictment meetings with the defense team.) In that same motion the defense argued vigorously against this broader definition and pushed their claim that the government was required to prove “official acts.”

By the time the government responded to that defense motion in February, it appears the prosecution had made a tactical decision to agree that proving “official acts” as defined in §201(a)(3) was required. From that point on, up to and including in the Supreme Court, both sides proceeded on the assumption that this was the proper standard. Although some organizations that filed amicus briefs expressed some doubts on this point, for the most part everyone else also agreed that the government had to prove McDonnell performed “official acts.”

It appears to me the defense made an aggressive early effort to narrow the playing field to McDonnell’s advantage by insisting that the “official act” definition applied, and the prosecutors ultimately acquiesced. This may be a decision the government now regrets.

The Consequences of a Definition

It’s hard to overstate the importance to McDonnell’s case of this focus on “official acts.” First of all, from day one, it allowed the defense to shift the narrative: “This case is not really about corruption and buying access, it’s about a technical dispute over the meaning of a statute. Let’s not focus on the corrupt deal where the Governor agreed to use the powers of his office to benefit the man who was secretly paying him off. Instead, let’s focus on whether McDonnell’s actions fit some precise statutory definition.” Legalistic and kind of boring; not sexy and corrupt.

Lawyers all know the old saying: “When the facts are with you, pound the facts. When the law is with you, pound the law. And when neither the facts nor the law are with you, pound the table.” The facts clearly were not with McDonnell; whether the law was with him is a matter of debate, but there’s no doubt the defense did a great job of pounding the law and thereby shifting the entire focus of the case.

Similarly, in the Supreme Court, the emphasis on “official acts” meant that we ended up with an opinion consisting largely of a dry, lawyerly statutory analysis of what precisely is meant by a “decision or action on” a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy.” If this had not been the focus, perhaps the Court would have been forced to grapple with the nature of the crime of bribery itself – the quid and the pro, not just the quo – and the overall corrupt agreement between McDonnell and Williams. Perhaps the opinion would have stepped back and seen the big picture, how secretly purchasing the kind of access and influence that Williams obtained is precisely what the crime of bribery is supposed to prevent. Instead, the Court dove down into the weeds of statutory interpretation and never emerged.

We will never know for certain whether the outcome in McDonnell would have changed had the definition of “official act” not become the focus of the case. But the defense victory on this one legal issue, months before trial and more than two years before the Supreme Court’s decision, may ultimately have been the key to McDonnell’s win.

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

Update 9/8/16: The Justice Department announced today that it will not re-try the McDonnells and will be dismissing all charges.

 

Suppose I’m a state governor who knows there are many people who would like to meet with members of my cabinet or other state officials to press for some particular action. I set up a system where I say, “If you want me to arrange for you to meet with a public official to make your pitch, you pay me $10,000. It won’t be disclosed to anyone, I’ll just put it in my pocket. I’m not agreeing to influence what decision is made, I’ll just get you in the room. But if you don’t pay, no meeting.”

Most people would probably consider such a “pay for access” system to be corrupt. Access can be critically important. If two companies are competing for a government contract, the one that is able to get a personal meeting with the deciding official is likely to have a significant advantage – particularly if that meeting came at the request of the official’s boss, the highest elected official in the state.

But after today’s decision in McDonnell v. United States, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, although such behavior may be “distasteful” or “tawdry,” it does not violate federal bribery law. This unfortunate decision dramatically limits the scope of federal anti-corruption statutes by adopting an artificially narrow interpretation of “official action.” It’s a discouraging day for anyone concerned about the influence of money in politics.

In a unanimous opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court today vacated the convictions of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. McDonnell and his wife Maureen were convicted on multiple counts of corruption back in September 2014. The case centered on their relationship with a businessman named Jonnie Williams. Williams owned a company that made a dietary supplement called Anatabloc, and he was interested in having Virginia universities conduct research studies of Anatabloc to help him obtain FDA approval.

The evidence at trial established that Williams gave the McDonnells more than $170,000 in gifts. These included paying for the caterer for their daughter’s wedding, a Rolex watch, a shopping spree in New York for Maureen McDonnell where she purchased more than $10,000 in designer gowns, and $120,000 in no interest, no paperwork “loans.”

In exchange, the government charged, McDonnell agreed he would seek to promote Anatabloc within the Virginia government and seek to have Virginia universities perform the critical research studies. But the evidence did not establish that McDonnell’s efforts were particularly substantial or successful. He asked some government officials to meet with Williams to discuss possible studies of Anatabloc, hosted a product launch event at the Governor’s mansion, and made a few other inquiries on Williams’ behalf, but Williams never got the desired research studies or any other government benefit.

The McDonnells were convicted of two corruption offenses, Hobbs Act extortion under color of official right and honest services mail and wire fraud. When it comes to public corruption, both of these statutes effectively operate as bribery by another name. Bribery requires a corrupt quid pro quo: in exchange for receiving something of value, the public official agrees to use the power of his or her office to benefit the bribe payer.

The issue therefore boiled down to whether McDonnell’s conduct amounted to bribery under these corruption statutes. The parties throughout the case had agreed that honest services fraud and Hobbs Act bribery should be defined by using the language of the principal federal bribery statute, 18 U.S.C. § 201 (which applies only to federal public officials and was not used in the McDonnell case). As I’ve argued elsewhere, this is a questionable proposition for a number of reasons. But the Supreme Court agreed to resolve the case on that basis, and held that the outcome in McDonnell’s case should be controlled by the language of Section 201 – a crime with which he was never charged.

Section 201 defines bribery, in part, as a public official corruptly accepting a thing of value in exchange for agreeing to be influenced in the performance of an “official act.” “Official act” is defined as “any decision or action on any question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy, which may at any time be pending, or which may by law be brought before any public official . . . .” There was no question that McDonnell accepted things of value from Williams; the quid side of the equation was not at issue. The case boiled down to whether the steps taken by McDonnell fit this legal definition of “official act” — in other words, whether they were a legally sufficient quo.

Image of former Gov McDonnell. The Bob McDonnell bribery cases narrowed the scope of federal corruption law

McDonnell’s Conduct and “Official Acts”

Throughout the case, the defense had maintained that what McDonnell did for Williams did not amount to official acts under federal bribery law. McDonnell’s actions, they argued, were mere routine political courtesies that might be extended to any supporter or constituent. McDonnell may have introduced Williams to government decision-makers, but he never tried to put his “thumb on the scale” of any decision that those officials made. The critical distinction, they argued, was between providing mere access and actually engaging in the exercise of official power.

In an opinion that spends a good deal of time parsing the specific language of Section 201 quoted above, the Supreme Court agreed with McDonnell. The Court noted that determining whether there were “official acts” under Section 201 requires two steps: first, the Court must determine whether there was a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding, or controversy,” and if so, then whether the public official took any “decision or action on” that proceeding or controversy.

The Court first held that the terms “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy” connote some kind of formal and structured exercise of government power, such as a lawsuit, determination by an agency, or hearing before a committee. The language suggests a specific and focused proceeding where something concrete is to be resolved. Simply arranging a meeting or making a phone call, the Court said, does not rise to this level.

The Court then considered whether making a phone call or arranging a meeting could be considered a “decision or action on” a proceeding or controversy, even if it was not a cause, suit, proceeding or controversy itself. The Court agreed with McDonnell that again these actions were insufficient. Making a phone call, arranging a meeting, or hosting an event is not a “decision” or “action” “on” any matter, suit, or controversy. Again, the language of the statute suggests some formal exercise of power by the official and some kind of substantive decision or action.

The government had argued for a broader interpretation of official acts that would encompass a wider range of activities routinely carried out by public officials, but the Court concluded that its narrower definition was required. Any broader reading, the Court held, would have dangerous constitutional implications due to the potential to criminalize many routine interactions between politicians and supporters that are an inherent part of our current political system. In addition, the government’s broader interpretation posed potential federalism concerns, giving federal prosecutors the power to set the standards of ethics and good behavior for state and local officials.

But the case was not a complete win for McDonnell. The Court rejected his argument that the statutes under which he was convicted should be struck down as unconstitutionally vague, holding that any potential vagueness was cured by the Court’s narrowing interpretation. It also rejected his request that the Court find he did not perform or agree to perform any “official acts” as now defined, holding that this determination should be made by the lower courts in light of the Supreme Court’s holding.

It’s the Agreement That Matters

The actions that McDonnell actually took on Williams’ behalf, the Court held, were not themselves “official acts.” But that is not the end of the inquiry. As the Court noted, for purposes of bribery law what matters is not what the government official actually did but what he agreed to do. The crime is the corrupt deal to sell your office. So even though McDonnell’s phone calls or arranging of meetings may not have been official acts themselves, they could serve as evidence that a corrupt deal existed between McDonnell and Williams in which McDonnell did agree to take official action.

The Court observed there was evidence at trial of things that would qualify as a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy,” such as the question whether Virginia universities should undertake research studies of Anatabloc. A government official deciding this question would be engaged in official action, as would another official (such as McDonnell) who tried to pressure or persuade that official to act.

The government failed to prove that the things actually done by McDonnell rose to the level of “decisions or actions on” any of these matters. But if there was proof that McDonnell agreed with Williams to take such action, that would be sufficient.

This will likely be the focus of the case going forward. The Fourth Circuit must consider whether there was sufficient evidence introduced for a properly instructed jury to conclude that there was an agreement between Williams and McDonnell for the Governor to engage in official acts – even if he ultimately did not really follow through or was unsuccessful.

What Happens Now

The key problem with McDonnell’s conviction, the Court held, was that the jury instructions did not accurately reflect the legal definition of “official act” that the Court has now adopted. As a result, McDonnell may have been convicted for conduct that does not violate federal bribery law. At a minimum, therefore, he is entitled to a new trial that concludes with new, proper jury instructions.

For now, the Court has sent the case back to the Fourth Circuit. That court is to decide whether, given the evidence at trial, a properly instructed jury could possibly find that an agreement existed between McDonnell and Williams that McDonnell would perform official acts in exchange for the gifts. If so, he could be re-tried and potentially convicted again. On the other hand, if the Fourth Circuit concludes that, in light of the Supreme Court’s holding, there was not sufficient evidence to prove that such an agreement existed, then McDonnell is entitled to have his case dismissed altogether and there will be no new trial. The Supreme Court said it was expressing no opinion on those questions.

Even if the Fourth Circuit determines that the evidence was potentially sufficient, it will be up to the government to decide whether they want to re-try the case. It seems likely that they would, but they would have to make that judgment in light of the Supreme Court’s holding, their own assessment of the evidence, and their judgment about the proper allocation of prosecutorial resources.

Beyond McDonnell, this case represents another narrowing of federal corruption laws by the U.S. Supreme Court. Six years ago in Skilling v. United States, the Court scaled back honest services fraud by limiting that theory to bribery and kickbacks, thus excluding other corrupt conduct such as acting on conflicts of interest. Now in McDonnell the Court has limited all of federal bribery law to an artificially narrow category of “official acts.”

The Court focused solely on the quo side of the bribery, acting out of professed fears that without a narrow definition of “official act” routine political courtesies extended in return for campaign contributions and routine support might  be criminalized. But this fails to take into account both sides of the bribery equation. This was not a campaign contribution case; the gifts from Williams to McDonnell were personal and went into his own pocket. The nature of the gifts themselves is substantial evidence of a corrupt agreement, which would not be true in a case involving routine campaign contributions. It’s not enough that there be a gift; it must be a corrupt gift. By focusing exclusively on the particular trees of McDonnell’s actions rather than the entire quid pro quo agreement, the Court missed the corrupt forest that was the relationship between McDonnell and Williams.

The Supreme Court has essentially ruled that using money to buy access the “little guy” can never hope to have is just politics as usual and is not corrupt — even when the money is in the form not of public campaign contributions but of secret, undisclosed personal gifts. The Court’s artificially narrow concept of “official action” has once again carved out a safe harbor in federal corruption law for behavior that most would consider not just unseemly, but criminal.

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Supreme Court Affirms Expansive Federal Criminal Jurisdiction in Taylor

On June 20, 2016 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Taylor v. United Statesa case that was argued last February.  The defendant, David Taylor, was convicted of violating the Hobbs Act for taking part in two home invasion robberies near Roanoke, Virginia with members of a gang known as the “Southwest Goonz.”  The gang routinely targeted the homes of known drug dealers, hoping to find large quantities of cash and/or drugs along with victims who might be unlikely to report the crime.

In the crimes for which Taylor was convicted the robbers actually obtained only $40 in cash, some jewelry, and a couple of cell phones.  Taylor also sought to introduce evidence that even if the intended victims were drug dealers, they only sold locally-grown marijuana within the state of Virginia. He argued that the small-time and relatively unsuccessful robberies of purely local drug dealers did not have an effect on interstate commerce sufficient to support federal criminal jurisdiction under the Hobbs Act.

In a 7-1 holding, the Court rejected Taylor’s argument. The Hobbs Act requires that a robbery have an effect on interstate commerce or other commerce over which Congress has jurisdiction. Because Congress has substantial authority over the nationwide market in controlled substances, the Court said, any robbery of a drug dealer will affect commerce over which Congress has jurisdiction. And because the Hobbs Act applies to attempted robberies, this will be true even if, as in Taylor’s case, the defendant did not actually obtain any drugs.

In other words, if the government proves beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant was attempting to rob a drug dealer, that will satisfy the federal jurisdictional requirements of the Hobbs Act whether or not that robbery was successful. The government does not need to prove that the drug dealer victim actually sold drugs across state lines or any other actual effect on interstate commerce.

The holding in Taylor is relatively narrow because it is limited to cases involving robberies of those engaged in the commerce of illegal drugs. If a defendant robbed someone who, for example, grew tomatoes in his back yard and sold them only at local markets, the outcome could be different and a more substantial effect on interstate commerce might be required. But Congress has such expansive federal jurisdiction over the market in controlled substances that any attempt to affect that market through robbery will subject a defendant to federal jurisdiction.

In short, the Hobbs Act now serves as a catch-all federal robbery statute that applies to any attempt to rob a drug dealer, no matter how local, trivial, or unsuccessful.  Justice Thomas dissented, arguing that a more substantial showing of an effect on interstate commerce should be required before such a small-scale, local robbery can be prosecuted in federal court.

For a more detailed analysis of the facts and arguments in Taylor, see this post that I wrote about the case back when it was argued.

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Extortion Distortion: Ocasio v. United States

In criminal law, we ordinarily think of perpetrator and victim as two distinct entities. It would be nonsensical, for example, to talk about me robbing myself or defrauding myself. But the same may not be true of an extortion conspiracy under the Hobbs Act. In Ocasio v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that a defendant may be charged with conspiring to extort money from himself.

So what makes such a contortionist extortionist possible? Although it sounds a bit bizarre, this result doesn’t represent some new watershed in white collar crime or dramatic expansion of federal criminal jurisdiction. It’s simply the logical, albeit unfortunate, outgrowth of a questionable Supreme Court decision more than two decades old.

Samuel Ocasio was one of dozens of Baltimore police officers involved in a widespread corruption scheme with the owners of a garage called Majestic Auto Repair. Police officers would refer drivers involved in car accidents to Majestic for necessary repairs, and in return the garage owners would pay the officers $150 to $300 per car. When the scheme came to light Ocasio, a number of other officers, and the owners of Majestic were charged with conspiracy to commit extortion under the Hobbs Act.

Extortion usually connotes payments made under some kind of duress; think burly guy smacking his palm with a baseball bat while he recommends that you buy the “health insurance” he is selling. But the Hobbs Act also prohibits extortion “under color of official right,” which essentially operates as bribery by another name. And because the federal bribery statute generally applies only to federal officials, prosecutors frequently turn to Hobbs Act extortion to prosecute state and local bribery schemes such as that in Ocasio.

Evans and Extortion Under Color of Official Right

The use of Hobbs Act extortion to prosecute bribery has its roots in a 1992 Supreme Court Case, Evans v. United States. Evans, a county commissioner in Georgia, was convicted of extortion under color of official right for accepting money in exchange for a favorable zoning decision. The Court rejected Evans’ claim that he had to actually induce the payment or “shake down” the payer to be guilty of extortion. It held that at common law extortion under color of official right was the “rough equivalent of what we would now describe as ‘taking a bribe.’” It was enough that a public official accepted a payment knowing that it was given in exchange for some exercise of official power.

Justice Thomas wrote a vigorous dissent in Evans, joined by Justice Scalia and Chief Justice Rehnquist. He argued that bribery and extortion had always been distinct crimes and that the majority’s decision obliterated that distinction. In particular, in a bribery case both sides – the bribe payer and the bribe recipient – are guilty parties to a corrupt deal, and both may be prosecuted. But in extortion, the person who pays the official is considered a victim, not a willing and culpable participant.

Because the payer of extortion is generally considered a victim, extortion under color of official right applies only to public officials. On its face, the Hobbs Act does not punish the payment of the extortion. What Evans resulted in, therefore, was an oddity probably unique in criminal law: a statute that prohibits bribery but only punishes the public official side of the bribe transaction. More than twenty years later, the implications of that decision led to the dispute that landed before the Supreme Court in Ocasio.

Once Evans declared extortion under color of official right to be equivalent to bribery, it was predictable that prosecutors in appropriate cases would seek a way to charge the payer’s side of those bribery transactions. Some cases have charged bribe payers with aiding and abetting their own extortion by the officials they were paying. An equally inelegant theory is that used in Ocasio: prosecutors indicted the garage owners and Officer Ocasio for conspiracy to violate the Hobbs Act, charging that the owners conspired with Ocasio to extort money from the owners themselves.

In Ocasio, Baltimore police were charged with extortion conspiracy under the Hobbs Act

Ocasio and the Court’s Opinions

Ocasio’s case before the Court challenged this conspiracy theory and hinged on the language of the Hobbs Act. The statute’s definition of extortion requires that the public official obtain property from “another.” In the context of a conspiracy, Ocasio claimed, this must mean the conspirators agree to obtain property from someone outside of that conspiracy. If the co-conspirators simply agree to exchange property among themselves, he argued, they do not obtain property of “another” within the meaning of the statute.

The majority, through Justice Alito, rejected this argument. Ocasio’s conviction, the Court said, was simply a straightforward application of textbook conspiracy law: someone can be guilty of conspiracy to commit a crime even if they didn’t — or couldn’t — commit all elements of the underlying crime themselves.

For example, if I act as an agent for a Congressman to solicit bribes from defense contractors, I can be found guilty of conspiracy to accept bribes even though, as someone who is not a public official, I could not be charged with accepting bribes myself. If I participate in a bank robbery by providing the robbers with inside information about the bank vault and security, I’ve conspired to commit bank robbery even if I never take part in the actual robbery itself.

In Ocasio’s case, the Court held, it’s true the garage owners, as private citizens, could not commit the crime of extortion under color of official right, and if they obtained their own money it would not be property from “another.”  But although the owners could not commit the crime themselves, they could conspire to help officer Ocasio commit it. Ocasio violated the statute by obtaining property from another — which simply means someone other than Ocasio, in this case, the owners — and the owners agreed to help him do it. Accordingly, the conspiracy charge was not inconsistent with the language of the Hobbs Act, even though the “victims” whose property was obtained were also part of the conspiracy itself.

The Court rejected concerns that this holding might make even innocent extortion victims liable for conspiring with public officials who were shaking them down. There is a distinction, the Court noted, between grudging consent given by a payer who feels he has no alternative and the proof of intent required to establish that the payer knowingly and voluntarily joined a conspiracy. Only the latter is the equivalent of bribery that would render the payer equally as culpable as the public official.

Justice Breyer wrote a brief concurrence, saying that the convoluted result made him tend to agree with Justice Thomas that Evans was probably wrongly decided. Nevertheless, he concluded, Ocasio had not asked the Court to overrule Evans, and given that case’s holding the majority opinion was correct as a matter of conspiracy law.

Justice Thomas, not surprisingly, dissented and reiterated his view that Evans was a mistake. He argued the Court should not compound the error by extending the reasoning of Evans to encompass Hobbs Act conspiracy. Justice Sotomayor, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, wrote a separate dissent agreeing with Officer Ocasio that the most natural reading of the statutory language required the members of the conspiracy to obtain the property of someone outside the conspiracy.

The Impact of Ocasio: Not Much

I think Justice Breyer has it right; if we start with the Evans holding as a given, then Ocasio seems correct. The linguistic gymnastics required to frame a charge against the bribe payers in what is really a bribery case do highlight the shaky foundation of the Evans holding equating extortion with bribery. But as the majority noted, if you accept Evans, then basic conspiracy law dictates the result in Ocasio.

The dissenters expressed concerns about the breadth of federal criminal statutes and the scope of conspiracy law. Justice Sotomayor said she feared the Court’s ruling would invite prosecutors to round up all parties in an extortion scheme, charge everyone with conspiracy, and see “what sticks and who flips.” They also raised federalism concerns, questioning whether it was appropriate for the federal government to pursue local corruption cases that could be left to the states.

Debates about sweeping federal criminal statutes and the dangers of prosecutorial power are common these days. The pending case involving the corruption convictions of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (also a Hobbs Act case) contains many of the same themes. But in Ocasio, concerns about inappropriate charges have little force. No one suggests the owners of Majestic were not blameworthy or did not deserve to be prosecuted.

As for federalism concerns, there are already many ways for federal prosecutors to charge state and local bribery. Even before the Court’s decision in Skilling v. United States, for example, it’s been clear that honest services mail and wire fraud applies to bribery and kickback schemes like that in Ocasio. Under certain conditions the Travel Act (18 U.S.C. § 1952) and the Federal Program Bribery statute (18 U.S.C. § 666) also apply to state and local corruption. It’s even likely that prosecutors could have named Majestic as a RICO enterprise and indicted everyone involved for violating RICO (18 U.S.C. § 1962) based on a pattern of state-law bribery.

In short, there are plenty of ways for federal prosecutors to pursue state and local corruption. The Hobbs Act is just one potential arrow in the prosecutor’s quiver. If Ocasio had gone the other way, I doubt there’s a single future case that would have gone unprosecuted as a result. If some members of the Court really have issues with federal prosecutors having the power to charge state and local bribery, they are several decades late to that party.

The concern about prosecutors having the power to pick and choose whom to charge with conspiracy is similarly misplaced. Prosecutors do this all the time when deciding whether a particular scheme is a true extortion scheme, where the payers are the victims, or is more like a traditional bribery scheme where the payers should be charged. That’s the essence of prosecutorial discretion and making sound charging decisions.

It’s a little disheartening to hear Justice Sotomayor, herself a former prosecutor, suggest that prosecutors might just round up everyone they see and charge them with conspiracy with no regard for their actual culpability. If that were to actually happen it would be a much bigger problem than simply the breadth of the Hobbs Act – but the presence or absence of one legal theory would not make any practical difference to such “rogue prosecutors.”

In the end, therefore, Ocasio leaves the white collar crime landscape largely unchanged. Future defendants, seeing a potential invitation in Ocasio, will likely file petitions asking the Court to overturn Evans, but it’s tough to see a current majority willing to do that. Congress, of course, could step in and clear everything up by amending the Hobbs Act, but that seems even less likely given the current gridlock on Capitol Hill.

And so the Hobbs Act remains as one of many powerful tools for federal prosecutors — and a quirky one, given the untidy legacy of Evans and its peculiar version of extortion distortion.

Note: this post is adapted from an article I published in the George Washington Law Review’s On the Docket.  You can find that article here.

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Supreme Court May Use the Bob McDonnell Case to Limit Federal Corruption Laws

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court heard the appeal of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. As regular Sidebars readers know, I’ve followed the case closely, and I was at the Court to hear the arguments. Although it’s always risky to predict results based on the questions from the Justices, it appears that McDonnell and his attorneys have reason to feel pretty optimistic.

One reason they have for optimism is the fact that the Court agreed to hear the case at all; there was no obvious reason to do so. There was no circuit split in the lower courts that the Justices needed to resolve. A three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld McDonnell’s convictions, and all the judges of that court had unanimously declined to rehear the case.

But the Supreme Court not only took the case, it took the unusual step of allowing McDonnell to remain free on bond while the case was pending. And during oral argument yesterday it became clear the Court has some deep reservations about the potential breadth of federal bribery laws.

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McDonnell and his attorneys outside the Supreme Court after the arguments

The Supreme Court Arguments 

McDonnell and his wife Maureen were convicted in September 2014 of multiple counts of federal corruption. Over a two-year period they received a series of extravagant gifts and loans worth more than $175,000 from businessman Jonnie Williams. The government charged that, in exchange, the McDonnells agreed to promote Williams’ dietary supplement, Anatabloc, within the Virginia government. (For more detail about the case and my analysis of the charges, you can read some of my earlier posts here and here.)

At the Supreme Court Noel Francisco, arguing for McDonnell, focused on what has been the defense’s primary theme throughout the case: whatever McDonnell may have done for Williams, it did not amount to “official action” for purposes of federal bribery law. He said the government proved only that McDonnell did things such as introduce Williams to other state officials or urge others within the government to meet with Williams to discuss possible research studies. Such steps, he argued, cannot constitute official action unless there is evidence that the governor also tried to influence the outcome of any subsequent meeting.

The distinction, Francisco urged, is between actually making or influencing a government decision and simply providing access to those who might do so. McDonnell, he argued, did only the latter. He said the government’s theory made it possible for politicians to be prosecuted for extending simple political courtesies to a supporter, even if they never tried to exercise actual government power or influence any government decision on that supporter’s behalf.

Some potential cracks did appear in Francisco’s argument during questioning from the Court. Chief Justice Roberts asked about a government employee who worked as a scheduler, whose job it was to arrange meetings with the governor. For that individual, he said, arranging a meeting, “I suppose, would be an official act.” Francisco initially agreed that was possible.

That quickly got him in trouble, however, because it seemed inconsistent with the governor’s claim that simply arranging a meeting can never, by definition, be a official action. Justice Kagan immediately started to probe this point with some follow-up questions, and Francisco quickly backed away from his initial concession. He said although other laws might prohibit the scheduler from taking payments for arranging meetings, it would not violate the bribery laws.

This was actually one of Francisco’s stronger points, which he made several times. Federal bribery law, he argued, is not meant to be a comprehensive ethical code that covers all misconduct. Even if bribery is interpreted more narrowly, as McDonnell urges, that would not necessarily immunize all kinds of misbehavior. There are other laws on the books, as well as personnel regulations and other potential sanctions, that may apply. But bribery law itself, he urged, needs to be more narrowly construed in order to avoid potentially criminalizing a great deal of routine political behavior.

The really tough questioning was reserved for Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben, arguing for the government. Dreeben began by trying to focus the Court on the implications of McDonnell’s position. Arranging access or setting up a meeting can absolutely be official action, he argued. Otherwise a governor could set up a “pay to play” system through which he routinely demanded that people pay him in exchange for his agreement to arrange a meeting with other state officials: if you don’t pay, you don’t get the meeting. That seems to be the essence of what the bribery laws prohibit.

Dreeben argued that the implications of a ruling for McDonnell would be staggering. The Court would be saying it is acceptable for officials to sell access to government actors to the highest bidder. He argued that official action encompasses anything ordinarily done in the course of a public official’s duties, including arranging meetings and access. There is no legal basis for the carve-out that McDonnell is seeking for actions that didn’t actually influence the exercise of some government power. To hold otherwise, he argued, would be to create a “recipe for corruption.”

But for the most part, the Court didn’t seem to be buying it. The Justices, of course, have to think not only about the case before them but also about the implications for future cases of any opinion that they write. And several seemed troubled by the implications of the government’s argument that even something as routine as arranging a meeting or writing a letter could potentially support a bribery prosecution.

Justice Breyer in particular seemed very concerned about finding a limiting principle to further define federal bribery. He argued that if the legal standards are too broad it implicates the separation of powers by giving the executive branch, in the form of prosecutors, too much power to dictate the actions of legislative branch officials. He pressed both sides to help the Court find the words to craft the appropriate legal standard.

A great deal of time was spent on hypotheticals. Justice Breyer wondered whether it would be a felony if a constituent took a politician to lunch and bought an expensive bottle of wine, and after lunch the politician wrote a letter to a government agency urging it to act on a matter of interest to that constituent. Chief Justice Roberts imagined a case where a businessman takes a governor for an afternoon of trout fishing, and they discuss whether the business could get tax credits within the state. Is that a felony, he asked? Justice Kennedy asked whether it was a felony for the President to provide access to high-dollar donors.

Dreeben responded by arguing that “official action” is only one aspect of the crime and that the question of official action does not have to carry all of the weight in a bribery case. The prosecution would still have to prove a corrupt quid pro quo, a direct agreement to take the official action in exchange for the particular thing of value. In effect, he said, you have to look at the whole picture, not just the official action side of the equation: “you need to run this through all the elements of the offense.”

Looking at the whole picture, Dreeben also noted, shows why a case involving campaign contributions or routine political support would be very different from the McDonnell case. The Court’s prior decisions make clear that it is not enough simply to show a politician took actions that were desired by someone who contributed to her campaign. Given the nature of the quid, a much stronger direct quid pro quo would need to be shown. But the McDonnell case does not involve campaign contributions, and so those concerns are not implicated.

Corruption, Dreeben concluded, has to include a situation such as this, where a governor calls his Secretary of Health and says “take a meeting with my benefactor.” That means the person who paid the governor “will have the preferential opportunity that other citizens who do not pay will not have” to make their case before the Secretary. That kind of pay to play access is the essence of corruption and should be prohibited. The purpose of bribery law is to ensure that government officials act equally for the benefit of all, and not secretly to benefit those who are paying them off.

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White Collar Crime and Prosecutorial Discretion: The Inherent Tension

As I noted, it’s always risky to try to predict outcomes based on the Court’s questioning. But Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben didn’t seem to be getting a lot of love from the bench. Only Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg seemed to be potentially in his camp. To varying degrees, all of the other Justices who asked questions seemed quite skeptical of the government’s position.

McDonnell’s case may be the latest example of the Supreme Court’s increasing discomfort with a common feature of white collar crime: broadly written laws that then rely on prosecutorial discretion to determine which cases to bring. White collar statutes tend to use expansive language in order to avoid creating loopholes or safe harbors for criminal activity. But as a result, it is often relatively easy to come up with a parade of horribles about hypothetical cases that might fall within the statute.

For example, six years ago in Skilling v. United States the Supreme Court ruled that the crime of honest services fraud should be narrowed to apply to only bribery and kickback cases. I remember during the Skilling arguments Justice Breyer (also the most vocal questioner in the McDonnell argument) expressing incredulity that an employee who called in sick to go to the ballgame could potentially be found guilty of honest services fraud. By limiting honest services fraud to bribes and kickbacks, Skilling excused the truant employee example.

But in fact Skilling did not solve Justice Breyer’s problem. An employee who uses the phone to call in sick to go to the ball game technically commits plain old federal wire fraud – there is no need to rely on honest services fraud. The employee is using the interstate wires to further a scheme to defraud his employer out of his salary. We don’t see such trivial cases clogging the federal courts because thankfully prosecutors exercise their discretion not to bring them – but legally, all of the elements of the offense are met.

Similarly, every witness interviewed by the FBI who lies about a material fact, no matter how trivial, meets the elements of the federal false statements statute. But only a relative handful of such cases end up being prosecuted, most often when there is other criminal conduct involved. If prosecutors actually brought charges every time someone lies to the FBI, they would have time to do little else.

It is similarly easy, as the Court demonstrated during the McDonnell arguments, to come up with hypothetical trivial cases that would violate the bribery laws. If I make an explicit deal with my Senator that if I buy him lunch he will write a letter to another federal agency on my behalf, then technically, yes, that meets the elements of the bribery statute. You don’t see such cases being brought because a) they probably almost never happen; and b) prosecutors recognize they are trivial and prosecuting would not be an appropriate exercise of their discretion.

Again, this breadth is a characteristic of many white collar criminal statutes. And although this did not come up explicitly during the McDonnell arguments, the government’s response to the hypothetical trivial cases effectively has to be, “Yes, that technically violates the statute, but we’d never bring such a case. Trust us.” That’s not a very satisfying answer to many on the Court these days.

This concern about the breadth of many statutes is also a component of the growing concerns these days about over-criminalization. Many are troubled by the fact that so much trivial conduct is potentially covered by federal criminal laws – even though the trivial cases usually do not end up being prosecuted.

But this system, of course, depends on prosecutors doing a good job of exercising their discretion. The Justices may feel an increasing need to limit the scope of some federal criminal statutes in light of their concerns about prosecutors’ charging practices in recent cases. For example, last year in Yates v. United States, prosecutors’ decision to charge a fishing captain with the twenty-year felony for throwing undersized fish overboard arguably led the Court to adopt an artificially narrow reading of a federal obstruction of justice statute. The year before that, in Bond v. United States, the Court expressed great concern over the government’s decision to use a statute prohibiting the use of chemical weapons to charge a jilted wife who sprinkled some caustic chemicals on a doorknob to try to harm her husband’s lover, resulting in only a minor skin irritation.

The Court may conclude that drawing some more limited statutory parameters is particularly appropriate when it comes to public corruption. As Justice Breyer emphasized, there are special separation of powers concerns at work in such cases. The fear is that if corruption laws are too sweeping, unscrupulous prosecutors might use them to take down political opponents.

The alternative to a system of broad statutes coupled with reliance on prosecutorial discretion is one of narrower laws that necessarily leave some loopholes and are easier to circumvent. During the McDonnell arguments, Justice Breyer, for one, seemed perfectly prepared to accept that. He noted that whatever standard the Court announces for “official action” will not be perfect and “will leave some dishonest conduct unprosecuted.” But that may be necessary, he argued, in order to avoid the separation of powers problems that result from the alternative of giving the prosecutor too much power to decide which conduct to punish.

Congress historically has chosen to draft deliberately broad corruption statutes to avoid making the laws easier to evade. As Dreeben noted, for decades those corruption laws have functioned reasonably well. Although no system is perfect, prosecutions involving routine political courtesies and campaign contributions are rare to non-existent – and McDonnell certainly is not such a case. The hypotheticals imagined by the Court are just that. They do not reflect the real world of federal corruption prosecutions, any more than imagined stories of Nationals fans indicted for calling in sick describe the real world of wire fraud.

The question now is whether the Court will nevertheless feel compelled once again to restrict the scope of federal criminal law, even if that means effectively creating a safe harbor for certain kinds of corruption. The impact on both pending and future prosecutions of public corruption could be dramatic.

A decision is expected by this June; Sidebars will keep you posted.

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Supreme Court Rejects Rod Blagojevich’s Appeal: Monty Python and Public Corruption

And now for something completely different . . . .

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Blagojevich (also known as “Blago”) was convicted on multiple counts of corruption in 2011 and was sentenced to fourteen years in prison.

While Blagojevich’s petition for certiorari was pending, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the corruption case of another former governor, Bob McDonnell of Virginia. McDonnell’s case is set to be argued on April 27 and should be decided by the end of this term.

When the Court agreed to take McDonnell’s case, some thought it might be a good omen for other public corruption defendants. Was the Court about to undertake a wholesale re-examination of corruption law in a way that would benefit Blagojevich, New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, and other officials with pending cases? But the refusal to hear Blago’s appeal puts at least a temporary damper on any such hopes.

And how does Monty Python figure into all this? Read on.

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Governor Blagojevich’s Case: Pay to Play

Blagojevich’s convictions resulted from a series of incidents in which he demanded cash or other things of value in exchange for various exercises of his power as governor. The most infamous example arose after Barack Obama was elected President. Obama had been a U.S. Senator from Illinois, and his election left a vacant Senate seat that Illinois law gave the governor the power to fill.

The FBI was already tapping Blago’s phones as part of an ongoing corruption probe, and it quickly became clear that the governor viewed his power to appoint Obama’s successor as a potential bonanza. In one memorable conversation, he was recorded telling his associate: “I’ve got this thing [the power to appoint a new Senator] and it’s f**king golden. I’m just not giving it up for f**cking nothing!”

Blagojevich believed that Obama’s preferred choice to take his seat was Valerie Jarrett. Accordingly, he tried to make a deal where he would appoint Jarrett in exchange for a spot in Obama’s cabinet or for a high-paying position in the private sector arranged by the President. When the Obama administration refused to make a deal, Blagojevich’s response was, “They’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation. F**k them.”

The governor then tried to make a deal with supporters of Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. to appoint Jackson to the Senate seat in exchange for a $1.5 million “campaign contribution,” but he was arrested before this proposal had a chance to play itself out.

The evidence at trial also included other examples of a “pay to play” culture in the governor’s office. For example, when hospital lobbyists sought an increase in reimbursement rates for Medicaid patients, Blagojevich let it be known he would approve the increase only in exchange for a “campaign contribution” of $50,000. In another incident, when the state legislature approved a program that taxed casinos for the benefit of racetracks, Blagojevich had intermediaries inform a racetrack owner that the governor would not sign the bill until the owner fulfilled a $100,000 “campaign pledge.”

Although the defense characterized the money involved in these incidents as campaign contributions, the government maintained this was a sham and that the money was really for Blagojevich’s personal benefit. The governor was serving his second term and had already decided not to run for re-election, and so had no apparent reason to raise campaign funds.

In July 2015 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in a decision I discussed here, reversed five of Blagojevich’s convictions. The Court held that those counts rested in part on an improper legal theory: that the trading of political favors (such as trading one appointment for another), without more, could constitute extortion or bribery. However, that left thirteen counts of conviction intact, and those convictions formed the basis of Blagojevich’s petition to the Supreme Court.

Campaign Contributions and Corruption

The key statutes Blagojevich was convicted of violating are Hobbs Act extortion under color of official right and honest services mail and wire fraud. These are two popular statutory vehicles for the federal prosecution of state and local corruption. Both essentially operate as bribery by another name: they prohibit public officials from agreeing to exercise the power of their office in exchange for something of value.

More straightforward cases of bribery involve secret gifts to a politician that have nothing to do with campaign fundraising. In Bob McDonnell’s case, for example, such gifts included a Rolex watch, designer gowns for his wife, and paying for the caterer at his daughter’s wedding. Because the politician has no apparent legitimate reason to be accepting such gifts, a corrupt agreement may more readily be inferred when the politician then acts in favor of the donor.

Where campaign contributions are concerned, however, the analysis becomes trickier. Politicians do have a right to solicit campaign funds, and donors have a right to support politicians whose policies they favor. A campaign contribution may still be extortion or a bribe, but the evidence of a corrupt link will need to be very strong. It is not enough that a politician solicits a campaign contribution and later takes an action that the donor desired – that happens every day. To prove corruption, the government must establish that a particular contribution was given or demanded in exchange for an agreement to take a specific action in return – a clear deal, or quid pro quo.

Of course, it isn’t enough for a politician simply to claim that money he received was a legitimate campaign contribution. If that is the claim, then evidence concerning the nature of the donation and how it was handled becomes important. For example, one way to distinguish legitimate campaign contributions from corrupt gifts is to see whether the “donation” is within relevant legal limits and whether it shows up on required public campaign finance reports. If not, the circumstantial evidence is much stronger that the purported “campaign contribution” was actually a bribe.

The two leading Supreme Court cases involving bribery and campaign contributions are McCormick v. United States (1991) and Evans v. United States (1992). Both involved charges of Hobbs Act extortion under color of official right. And in both cases, the defendants claimed the money they received was actually a campaign contribution (even though, in both cases, they had failed to include the money on their campaign finance reports).

In McCormick the Court made it clear that, when it comes to campaign contributions, it’s not enough for the government to show simply that a donation was made with the expectation that the official would take an action that he in fact later did take. As long as we have privately financed campaigns, that is simply the nature of our politics. The Court held that Congress could not have intended to criminalize conduct that is essentially unavoidable in our political system. For a campaign contribution to be corrupt, therefore, it must be accepted “in return for an explicit promise or undertaking by the official to perform or not to perform an official act.”

But the following year in Evans, the Court seemed to soften this “explicit promise” standard. It held that extortion under color of official right requires only that the public official accept the thing of value knowing that it was given in exchange for a particular official act. There is no requirement that the official verbally demand the payment or “shake down” the payer.

In an important concurrence, Justice Kennedy noted this was essentially the quid pro quo requirement inherent in any bribery prosecution. There cannot just be a coincidence of timing between support and official action; the parties must make a specific deal. But, he noted, the parties “need not state the quid pro quo in express terms, for otherwise the law’s effect could be frustrated by knowing winks and nods.” It is enough if the quid pro quo can be implied from words or actions and the totality of the evidence surrounding the transaction.

The standard that emerges from McCormick and Evans, therefore, is that Hobbs Act extortion under color of official right in a campaign contribution case requires an explicit quid pro quo — but “explicit” does not always mean “express.” The key is whether there is a corrupt link between payment and official action, and that link may be proven by circumstantial evidence in the absence of an express verbal or written agreement.

Blago’s Supreme Court Petition and Implications for McDonnell

Blago’s principal argument to the Supreme Court was that it needs to clarify the McCormick/Evans standard and what it takes to prove a quid pro quo in a campaign contribution case. He claimed his conviction wrongfully failed to distinguish criminal conduct from a legitimate request for political support. He urged the Court to use his case to hold that, where campaign contributions are concerned, a higher degree of proof of an explicit corrupt agreement should be required. The Court apparently was not persuaded.

Blagojevich had made this same argument in the Seventh Circuit, which also rejected it. Judge Easterbrook’s opinion noted that Blago “assumes that extortion can violate the Hobbs Act only if a quid pro quo is demanded explicitly, but the statute does not have a magic-words requirement. Few politicians will say, on or off the record, ‘I will exchange official act X for payment Y.’”

And, in a reference that may have made Easterbrook my new favorite judge, he observed: “‘Nudge nudge, wink, wink, you know what I mean’ can amount to extortion under the Hobbs act, just as it can furnish the gist of a Monty Python sketch.”

(This Monty Python reference apparently impressed the Solicitor General’s office as well; they quoted it in their brief opposing Blagojevich’s petition for certiorari. I’m guessing this may be the first time Monty Python has made its way into Supreme Court advocacy – although I’d love to be proven wrong about that.)

In other words, as Justice Kennedy observed in Evans, the law cannot be defeated by knowing winks and nods. The jury in Blagojevich’s case was free to find the existence of the quid pro quo based on the overall facts and circumstances — including the fact that Blago’s characterization of the money as campaign contributions seemed implausible.

Does the Court’s refusal to hear Blagojevich’s case have any implications for McDonnell’s appeal? In one sense their arguments are similar: McDonnell, too, is claiming the government has wrongfully criminalized routine interactions between a politician and his supporters, and has urged the Court to clarify the line between corruption and “politics as usual.” If the Court were concerned about where that line is being drawn and thought it needed to re-examine public corruption law, one might have expected them to take Blago’s case as well.

But it’s probably a mistake to read too much into this decision where McDonnell is concerned. The facts of the two cases are very different, and the Seventh Circuit accurately characterized the evidence against Blagojevich as overwhelming. His blatant actions did not present a very sympathetic vehicle for probing the outer limits of federal corruption law.

Legally, McDonnell’s claim is different as well. He is not directly challenging the existence of a quid pro quo; rather, he is claiming that even if there was a deal, the quo promised by McDonnell is legally insufficient because it was not an “official act” within the meaning of federal corruption law. This was not an issue presented in the Blagojevich case; he clearly undertook official actions, the question was simply whether he acted pursuant to a corrupt deal.

It’s also possible this is just a question of timing. One of the government’s arguments opposing Blago’s petition was that the Supreme Court should not consider any of his claims until the government decides whether to retry him on the dismissed counts and he is resentenced. The prosecutors have already announced they will not retry him, and he is scheduled for resentencing on June 30. Once that happens, Blago’s lawyers have said they will petition the Supreme Court again to review his legal claims.

So it appears Blago will get one more bite at the Supreme Court apple. As for McDonnell’s fate, we should have the answer sometime in June. Rest assured, Sidebars will keep you posted.  Say no more.

Update May 23, 2016: Today the Supreme Court rejected Blago’s petition to consider his appeal following his resentencing, so the Court will definitely not be hearing the case. His resentencing is now set for Aug. 6.

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