The Menendez Trial and the Future of Bribery

The prosecution has finished presenting its case in the trial of New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez. Menendez and his co-defendant, Dr. Salomon Melgen, are facing multiple counts of bribery and related charges. The government alleges that in exchange for gifts from Melgen including private jet trips, luxury vacations, and large political donations, Menendez interceded on Melgen’s behalf in various disputes he was having with the federal government. (A more detailed analysis of the indictment is available here.)

Senator Menendez faces corruption charges

Senator Robert Menendez

When the government rested last week, the judge made some comments that appeared to question whether the bribery case could survive the Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in McDonnell v. United States. This led to widespread speculation that the judge might dismiss many of the charges. But on Monday the judge ruled there was enough evidence to go to the jury. The defense is now putting on its case.

Menendez makes two primary types of claims concerning the bribery charges. The first is that the things he agreed to do for Melgen did not qualify as “official acts” under McDonnell and thus could not support a bribery conviction. The second is that, even if Menendez did perform official acts, they were not in response to any gifts from Melgen but were simply done out of friendship or as part of Menendez’s routine Senate responsibilities.

The McDonnell case has been looming over the Menendez prosecution from the beginning. If the Senator is convicted, I think there is a good chance that at least some of the bribery charges will indeed be overturned on appeal. But I believe it will be based primarily not on McDonnell but on a different Supreme Court case decided almost two decades ago.

McDonnell and “Official Acts”

The Supreme Court in McDonnell held that in any federal bribery case the prosecution must prove the public official agreed to be influenced in the performance of an “official act” as defined in 18 U.S.C. 201, the federal bribery statute. The Court concluded that Governor McDonnell’s actions —  making phone calls, arranging meetings, and holding an event at the Governor’s mansion — did not rise to the level of “official acts” and could not support a bribery conviction. (For a critique of McDonnell and its “official act” holding, you can see my posts here and here.)

The “official act” argument says, in effect, that even if there were a deal or quid pro quo, what the public official did – the quo – was not substantial enough to justify a bribery charge. The official can admit there was a link between his actions and the gifts he received, but argue that those actions were trivial or were simply routine political courtesies.

The McDonnell opinion has already resulted in some high-profile convictions being thrown out, including that of former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Senator Menendez has argued from the beginning of his case that the things he did for Dr. Melgen did not amount to official acts, and the judge has repeatedly rejected his arguments. As I wrote here, I think the judge is correct. If Menendez is convicted and those convictions are later overturned, I don’t expect it to be on the McDonnell “official act” ground.

Melgen is accused of bribing Senator Menendez

Dr. Salomon Melgen

Quid Pro Quo and the “Stream of Benefits” Theory 

Assuming Menendez did perform official acts, to be bribery those acts still needed to be done in exchange for the gifts he received from Melgen. This is the requirement of a quid pro quo, or corrupt intent. This is Menendez’s other main line of defense: he says that anything he did for Melgen was either out of friendship or was part of his general oversight and policy duties as a Senator, not in response to the gifts he received.

Some counts of the indictment related to Melgen’s hefty political contributions to Menendez allege a direct quid pro quo (Counts 9-14). They charge that in exchange for a particular donation, Menendez took a particular identified official act, such as advocating on Melgen’s behalf before the State Department or Department of Health and Human Services.

But a number of the charges (Counts 2-8) rely on a different bribery theory, known as “stream of benefits.” These counts charge that Menendez accepted gifts such as trips on Melgen’s private jet in exchange for “being influenced in the performance of official acts, as opportunities arose.” The specific official acts are not identified in the individual bribery counts, although a large number of official acts are described in the indictment as a whole.

Prosecutors use this “steam of benefits” theory in cases where the bribe payer essentially has the public official on retainer. In exchange for a series of gifts over time, the public official agrees do things to benefit the bribe payer when opportunities arise. It might not be possible to prove a direct link between any particular gift and any particular official act; what is charged is the continuing corrupt relationship, a sort of ongoing “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” theory.

The Supreme Court has never weighed in on this stream of benefits theory. It has been widely accepted in the lower courts, including those in the Third Circuit where Menendez is on trial. But Menendez’s attorneys claim that McDonnell has changed the legal landscape here as well.

The trial judge made some comments last week suggesting he might find that the stream of benefits theory did not survive McDonnell. In the end, though, he agreed with the government that McDonnell’s requirement that an official act be specific and focused does not mean the act has to be identified at the time of the corrupt agreement. In other words, the deal may be, “I’ll give you a stream of benefits over time, and in exchange you agree to do things for me, as the opportunities arise, that qualify as official acts.” The parties have to agree that the public official will perform official acts, but they don’t have to agree up front what the precise official acts might be.

As far as the impact of McDonnell itself is concerned, that seems like the right answer. McDonnell did not discuss the stream of benefits theory and there’s no particular reason to believe that the “official act” requirement, standing alone, would invalidate that theory.

But I think the Supreme Court’s overall approach in McDonnell does suggest the Court might well reject the stream of benefits bribery theory if given the opportunity. That rejection would primarily be based not on the holding of McDonnell, but on the language of the federal bribery statute itself and the reasoning of a 1999 Supreme Court case, United States v. Sun-Diamond Growers of California.

The Sun-Diamond Decision

In Sun-Diamond the defendant, a large agricultural cooperative, was charged with giving illegal gratuities to the Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Espy. The crime of gratuities, 18 U.S.C. 201(c), appears in the same statute as federal bribery, 18 U.S.C. 201(b). It prohibits giving a public official a thing of value “for or because of any official act.” It differs from bribery in that no corrupt intent to influence the official is required; a gratuity can be a mere “thank you” for an official act that has already been performed.

Sun-Diamond was prosecuted on what was sometimes called a “status gratuity” theory. The government didn’t identify any particular official acts by Espy to which the gifts were linked. Instead, it argued it was enough that the gifts were based on Espy’s official position and were made with the hope of building up a reservoir of goodwill with Espy, perhaps to influence or reward some unspecified official act in the future.

The Supreme Court rejected this theory. It was not enough, the Court held, to charge Sun-Diamond with paying gratuities to Espy based on his status or for official acts not named in the indictment. The Court found that section 201(c)’s requirement that a gratuity be “for or because of any official act” means a specific official act must be identified. The Court particularly focused on the phrase “any official act,” holding that this language “seems pregnant with the requirement that some particular official act be identified and proved.” It specifically rejected the alternative, broader interpretation that “any official act” meant any one of the universe of potential official acts “without specification as to which one.”

Did the Stream of Benefits Bribery Theory Survive Sun-Diamond?

Sun-Diamond rejected a gratuity prosecution based on a stream of gifts not linked to any particular official acts. But in the wake of Sun-Diamond, lower courts have continued to uphold the stream of benefits theory in bribery prosecutions. Courts have held that the reasoning of Sun-Diamond does not apply to bribery cases because bribery requires proof of a higher level of intent, a corrupt quid pro quo. That’s true, but as one of my old law professors liked to say, is that a difference that makes a difference?

The language of the gratuities and bribery statutes is strikingly similar. The bribery statute in section 201(b)(2)(A) prohibits a public official from accepting anything of value in exchange for agreeing to be “influenced in the performance of any official act.” That phrase – “any official act” – is precisely the language that the Court in Sun-Diamond said required a particular official act to be identified and proved. It’s not clear to me how the different levels of intent required for the two crimes makes any difference at all when it comes to interpreting this statutory language. For either a gratuity or a bribe, the statute and reasoning of Sun-Diamond appear to require a link to a particular, identifiable official act.

There is another reason to be suspicious of lower court decisions upholding the stream of benefits theory after Sun-Diamond: most of those cases involved prosecutions for honest services fraud or Hobbs Act extortion, not section 201 bribery. Courts in those cases typically were applying general bribery law principles, not parsing the precise statutory language of 18 U.S.C. 201. One of the leading “stream of benefits” decisions, a 2007 case from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit called United States v. Ganim (authored by now-Justice Sotomayor when she was on the appeals court) made precisely that point. Judge Sotomayor noted that Sun-Diamond hinged on the precise wording of section 201 and that the same reasoning did not necessarily apply to other corruption statutes, including the Hobbs Act charges at issue in Ganim.

Menendez is also charged with honest services fraud, but the bulk of the bribery charges in his indictment are under 18 U.S.C. 201. McDonnell and Sun-Diamond make it clear that when interpreting section 201 the Supreme Court will not look to common-law bribery principles but will strictly interpret the precise statutory language. As a result, lower court cases upholding the “stream of benefits” theory in honest services fraud or Hobbs Act cases are of limited value when considering how the Supreme Court would rule in Menendez’s case. And McDonnell suggests that however the Court ends up defining bribery for purposes of section 201, it will apply that same bribery definition to honest services fraud and the Hobbs Act as well.

The Menendez defense argues that the stream of benefits theory does not survive McDonnell. I think the better argument is that it actually did not survive Sun-Diamond and the Supreme Court just has not yet had a chance to say so. The Court’s approach to statutory interpretation in McDonnell simply further highlights why it is unlikely to buy the stream of benefits theory for bribery.

The Defense: Playing the Long Game

The trial judge is likely to let the jury decide the Menendez charges. Even if the judge thinks some of the bribery theories may be invalid, he will likely feel constrained by Third Circuit precedent to let the case go to the jury.

Senator Menendez is in part playing a long game, hoping that even if he is convicted he ultimately will prevail on appeal. Don’t forget that Governor McDonnell was convicted at trial and his conviction was affirmed by a unanimous Court of Appeals before the Supreme Court ultimately took the case and unanimously reversed.

If the Menendez case ever were to reach the Supreme Court, I think there’s a good chance the Court would reject the stream of benefits bribery theory. A number of counts against Menendez and Melgen would remain, so that alone would not mean they would walk free. But it would represent yet another step by the Court to further narrow the scope of federal public corruption law – a process that began nearly twenty years ago in Sun-Diamond.

Update: On November 16, 2017, the Menendez trial ended in a hung jury.

Like this post? Click here to join the Sidebars mailing list.

September Madness: The Problem with the NCAA Basketball Corruption Case

On Tuesday, September 26, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York announced with great fanfare that the office had filed charges against ten individuals in a fraud and corruption case involving college basketball. Acting U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim outlined the charges against four NCAA Division I coaches, a senior executive at Adidas, and five others. A chart in the press release noted that each defendant faces a maximum of between 80 and 200 years in prison.

The charges are the result of a two-year investigation that involved wiretaps, a confidential cooperating witness, and FBI undercover agents. The three criminal complaints outline two different corruption schemes. Although the complaints name several universities as the victims of these schemes, there is no allegation that any university actually lost any money or property. There are no claims that any of the student athletes or their families were financially harmed. The public was not harmed in any way.

But the defendants did violate NCAA rules. Those rules require that student athletes be amateurs and prohibit them from receiving any outside compensation. The rules also prohibit coaches from facilitating any contacts between athletes and outside agents and from receiving any outside compensation for acts related to their athletes. These rules violations (which were, of course, created by the undercover investigation itself) exposed the universities to potential financial penalties and sanctions from the NCAA. That exposure is what’s at the heart of the prosecution. The government’s case effectively takes the rules of the NCAA, a private non-profit corporation, and leverages violations of those rules into federal felony charges.

There’s no doubt the behavior of the defendants was deplorable. But are criminal sanctions exposing them to decades in prison the proper remedy? I’m not saying the charges are legally flawed – not all of them, anyway. But I do question whether this case represents a good use of two years of the time and resources of the agents and prosecutors involved. And I question whether bringing multiple felony charges on these facts is a sound exercise of prosecutorial discretion.

At the U.S. Attorney’s press conference, the very first question was from a reporter who asked (I’m paraphrasing), “It seems like everyone involved was actually benefitting financially. Who’s the victim here?” (19:40)

It’s a good question.

The Complaints

 The Coach Bribery Scheme

The coach bribery scheme is charged in two separate criminal complaints. The first complaint charges three coaches: Lamont Evans, an assistant coach at Oklahoma State and former assistant coach at South Carolina; Emanuel Richardson, an assistant coach at Arizona; and Anthony Bland, an associate head coach at University of Southern California. It also charges Christian Dawkins, an employee of a sports management company that represents NBA basketball players, and Munish Sood, a financial advisor.

The complaint alleges that the three coaches accepted cash bribes from Dawkins and Sood. The total amount of the bribes ranged from about $13,000 to about $22,000. In return, the coaches agreed to introduce student athletes to Dawkins and Sood and to encourage the athletes to hire Dawkins and Sood once the athletes left college and began playing in the NBA. The deals were brokered by another former financial advisor, Marty Blazer. Blazer, who was facing securities fraud charges of his own, was cooperating with the FBI and recording many of the meetings and phone calls. The complaint also charges that the defendants made improper payments to student athletes and concealed those payments from their universities.

The second complaint related to the coach bribery scheme charges only one coach: Chuck Person, an associate head coach at Auburn. It also charges Rashan Michel, the owner of a clothing store in Atlanta that specializes in making custom suits for athletes. The basic nature of the scheme is the same: Person allegedly accepted more than $90,000 in bribes from Blazer (the cooperating witness) and Michel. In exchange, Person agreed to introduce student athletes to Blazer and Michel and to encourage the athletes to retain them once they left college. Once again, the complaint also charges that the defendants made improper, undisclosed payments to current student athletes.

The charges in the coach bribery scheme include multiple counts of honest services fraud, bribery, honest services fraud conspiracy, bribery conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, and travel act conspiracy.

The High School Players Scheme

The scheme set forth in a third complaint involves a conspiracy to pay high school basketball players and their families. The defendants are James Gatto, the global marketing director for basketball at Adidas; Merl Code, an individual identified as affiliated with Adidas and its high school basketball programs; and Jonathan Augustine, program director for an amateur high school basketball program sponsored by Adidas. Also charged in this complaint are Christian Dawkins and Munish Sood, the same sports manager and financial adviser charged in the first complaint of the coach bribery scheme.

The complaint alleges that these defendants conspired to make secret payments to three different high school athletes and their families. In exchange, the families agreed the student would attend particular universities sponsored by Adidas, and that the student would sign deals with Adidas and use the services of Dawkins and Sood after joining the NBA.

The defendants allegedly agreed to pay $100,000 to the family of a top high school graduate from the class of 2017, although apparently only the first installment of $25,000 was actually paid. In return, the student allegedly agreed to attend University of Louisville. They also allegedly conspired to funnel $150,000 to the family of another high school student graduating in 2018, this time to induce that student to attend what appears to be University of Miami. Unnamed coaches at the two universities also were allegedly involved in the schemes.

The charges in the high school players scheme include wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and money laundering.

Analyzing the Criminal Charges

 Bribery and Bribery Conspiracy

 The coach bribery scheme complaints charge bribery and bribery conspiracy using three different theories: 18 U.S.C. § 666, federal program bribery (applies because the universities receive more than $10,000 a year in federal funds); 18 U.S.C. § 1343 and 1346, honest services wire fraud (applies to an employee who takes bribes or kickbacks in breach of a duty owed the employer); and 18 U.S.C. § 1952, the travel act (applies to interstate travel to further violations of state bribery law).

Under each statute the bribery theory is basically the same: the outside advisors (or undercover agents posing as outside advisors) paid the coaches to induce them to violate their duties to their university employers by violating NCAA rules, thereby exposing the universities to potential sanctions.

The bribery charges highlight the centrality of the NCAA rules to these complaints. There is no direct harm to the universities, financial or otherwise. This isn’t a case where an employee took bribes to disclose trade secrets to a competitor or to award a contract to an unqualified contractor, or took some other step that directly harmed the employer. There is only potential harm, and only because of possible sanctions by the NCAA for violating its rules.

Wire Fraud and Wire Fraud Conspiracy

The wire fraud and wire fraud conspiracy allegations (18 U.S.C. § 1343) charge that the defendants defrauded the universities by causing them to pay scholarship money to athletes who were actually ineligible due to the secret payments that were made to them. The high school players scheme also charges that the universities were defrauded of their right to control their limited scholarship assets and how they would be disbursed. Again, any potential harm results only from the possible violations of NCAA rules and penalties that might result. Paying the scholarships didn’t harm the universities, because they received the services of the players they wanted in return. The only potential harm would come if the improper payments were later discovered and the schools were sanctioned.

Money Laundering

Money laundering charges (18 U.S.C. § 1956) appear only in the high school players scheme. The complaint alleges that Gatto and the other defendants tried to conceal the payments going from Adidas to the families by running them through other entities and bank accounts controlled by the defendants and by creating fictitious invoices to cover their tracks.

I think the money laundering charges may be flawed. Money laundering requires that the charged financial transaction involve the “proceeds” of a crime – money generated by a completed unlawful activity. If the parents had received the money and then done something with it to disguise where it came from, that might be a laundering transaction involving the proceeds of the bribery scheme. But here the charged transactions appear to involve the money used to pay the bribes themselves. That money is not yet proceeds of the bribe for money laundering purposes. It only becomes proceeds once the bribes have been paid and the money is in the hands of the families.

There are plenty of cases throwing out convictions where prosecutors charged money laundering when in fact the financial transactions did not involve proceeds of a completed crime but represented the underlying criminal activity itself. This requires a more detailed discussion that I will probably return to in a future post. But unless there are more facts out there that don’t appear on the face of the complaint, I believe it’s likely the money laundering charges will not survive.

The problem with the NCAA basketball corruption case

Criminalizing the NCAA Rules

Review of the charges makes it clear that the entire criminal case hinges on violations of the NCAA rules. The only harm to the alleged victims – the universities – stems from any sanctions that might potentially result from the violation of those rules. Take away the NCAA rules, and there is no criminal case.

As the complaints note, the NCAA rules provide that schools violating the rules may suffer penalties including limitations on post-season play, fines, and limitations on the ability to grant scholarships or recruit athletes. But the rules do not suggest that those who violate them may be subject to federal criminal prosecution.

The defendants could be forgiven for thinking that if they got caught violating the rules, the worst that would happen is they would be fired. Maybe the university would come after them to try to recoup any financial penalties. Their careers would certainly be over. But they likely didn’t believe that violating the internal rules of a private athletic organization would potentially subject them to decades in federal prison.

Prosecution seems even more questionable when you consider that virtually all of the conduct here likely would be legal if it related to professional athletes. The payments would be called finder’s fees or product endorsement deals. The purported criminality stems only from the NCAA’s insistence on maintaining the fiction that these athletes are amateurs and that high-level college basketball is actually about college, rather than about big business and providing farm teams for the NBA.

There’s a lot of behavior that can be squeezed into white collar violations but where criminal sanctions aren’t required. That’s where the exercise of prosecutorial discretion comes in. This case is really about the violation of NCAA rules. NCAA sanctions against the offending schools and individuals would be the more appropriate remedy.

The players weren’t harmed. Their families weren’t harmed. The teams weren’t harmed. The public wasn’t harmed. The coaches were still coaching, and the games were not affected. The universities were only potentially harmed — and only because of the rules of a private organization they voluntarily joined in support of athletics programs that earn them millions of dollars.

And this is where the Department of Justice chooses to devote its resources? Look, I love DOJ, but I can hear the critics now: “You can crash the entire financial system and no one gets prosecuted. But don’t you dare mess with college basketball!”

This year it appears the madness didn’t wait until March.

Like this post? Click here to join the Sidebars mailing list.

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.

Like this post? Click here to join the Sidebars mailing list

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

Update: No Charges To Be Filed Against Former Oregon Governor and First Lady

Federal authorities in Oregon announced Friday they will not be filing any criminal charges against former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber and former first lady Cylvia Hayes. The investigation led by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oregon had been going on for more than two years. Kitzhaber resigned in 2015 in the midst of a scandal involving allegations that Hayes may have traded on her position in his administration to obtain lucrative private consulting contracts.

I wrote about the investigation back in 2015 when it first began. This post discusses the nature of the allegations and what the grand jury might be investigating. This post talks about the law of honest services fraud and whether it might apply to Oregon’s first lady.

After a more than two-year investigation, no criminal charges. That’s sometimes the nature of white collar criminal investigations. With a street crime, such as a homicide, we know a crime has been committed. With white collar, often it takes a lengthy grand jury investigation to determine whether a crime has been committed at all — and sometimes the answer is no.

Like this post? Click here to join the Sidebars mailing list.

Judge Gorsuch, White Collar Crime, and the Legacy of Justice Scalia

The confirmation battle over Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s pick to fill the vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, promises to be ugly. All aspects of his record will be thoroughly dissected — and likely distorted — by both political parties. Looming over the proceeding is Democratic anger over the Merrick Garland nomination and the threat of Republican Senators to invoke the “nuclear option” to break any Democratic filibuster. It’s destined to be one of those political knife fights that reminds everyone why they hate Washington.

Partisans on both sides will be trying to predict how a Justice Gorsuch might rule on any number of hot-button issues. But here at Sidebars we are particularly interested in how Gorsuch’s presence on the Supreme Court might influence the law of white collar crime. So I spent some time this week reading opinions written by Judge Gorsuch on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in cases involving white collar offenses such as mail and wire fraud, public corruption, obstruction of justice and money laundering, to see if I could glean anything from those decisions.

I didn’t find anything particularly remarkable. Most of the white collar cases where Judge Gorsuch wrote the opinion for a three-judge panel ruled in favor of the government, but that’s true of most criminal appeals. Most of the decisions were unanimous. That’s also not unusual, but at least it suggests a judge who generally colors within the lines of established precedent and is not a bomb-thrower writing dissents advocating extreme positions.

One thing I definitely learned is that Judge Gorsuch is indeed a terrific writer, as many others have noted. His opinions are clear, concise, and free of legal jargon. They are a pleasure to read, which is saying something when it comes to judicial opinions. In that regard he reminds me of Justice Kagan, in my view currently the best writer on the Court. That’s something I really admire — although I guess if you fear a Justice Gorsuch is going to gut your fundamental liberties it’s cold comfort to know he’ll do it with great style and clarity.

In any event, it appears unlikely that any of Judge Gorsuch’s opinions in white collar cases will be particularly controversial or a focus of his confirmation hearing. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing we can learn about how Justice Gorsuch might approach such cases at the high court.

Those who have studied or worked with Judge Gorsuch and know him best describe him as a judge in the mold of Antonin Scalia, the Justice whose seat he would assume. The opinions and other materials I reviewed certainly support that characterization. And if Justice Gorsuch does follow in the footsteps of Justice Scalia when it comes to criminal law, it could lead to some interesting and potentially surprising results.

Antonin_Scalia_Official_SCOTUS_Portrait

Justice Scalia’s White Collar Legacy

When it comes to Justice Scalia and criminal law, it’s complicated. Although conservative, he was definitely not a “hanging judge” ruling against criminal defendants at every opportunity. On the contrary, Scalia’s strict approach to statutory and constitutional interpretation often resulted in decisions that favored criminal defendants – and often led him to side with some of the most liberal members of the Court.

In constitutional law, Justice Scalia’s originalist approach made him suspicious of expansive notions of government power and protective of the rights of criminal defendants embodied in the text of the Constitution. In areas such as the right of defendants to confront witnesses against them (for example, Crawford v. Washington), the right to a jury trial (Blakely v. Washington), and the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures (Florida v. Jardines and Kyllo v. United States, for example), Scalia was a powerful voice warning against government encroachment on these fundamental constitutional liberties. On the other hand, when it came to doctrines he considered judicial inventions not found in the text of the Constitution – such as the exclusionary rule and right to Miranda warnings – he was much less sympathetic.

White collar cases more often involve the interpretation of statutes, not the Constitution. And white collar statutes are notorious for being broad and somewhat vague, using sometimes fuzzy terms such as “fraud” that are not otherwise defined. Justice Scalia authored a number of significant white collar opinions and dissents. His strict textualist approach generally led him to read white collar statutes narrowly. He was skeptical of prosecutors’ attempts to fashion expansive theories of criminal liability not directly spelled out in the statutes. Some Justices are much more willing to hold that courts should flesh out the parameters of broadly-worded criminal laws; Scalia insisted that crimes had to be specifically defined by Congress, not by judges.

For example, Justice Scalia was a long-time critic of a popular species of mail and wire fraud known as honest services fraud. Frequently used in prosecution of state and local corruption, it charges that victims were defrauded not of money or property but of their intangible right to the honest services of a politician or other individual who owed them a duty. Justice Scalia maintained throughout his career that the idea of “honest services” was too amorphous to support criminal liability and failed to provide adequate notice about what conduct was prohibited.

In Skilling v. United States in 2010 the Court responded to vagueness concerns by narrowing honest services fraud liability to cases involving bribes and kickbacks. Justice Scalia wrote a separate opinion arguing that the Court should go further and declare the honest services fraud statute unconstitutionally vague in all circumstances. (He even referred to it as “so-called honest services fraud,” a locution that President Trump might appreciate.)

In another leading mail fraud case, Schmuck v. United States (yes, that’s the real name), the issue was whether the mailings proved by the prosecution actually furthered the scheme to defraud as required by the statute. The majority adopted a broad reading of the “in furtherance” requirement and upheld the convictions. Justice Scalia dissented, criticizing the prosecution for what he deemed an overly-expansive view of the mail fraud statute. His opinion arguing that the defendant’s convictions should be reversed was joined by Justices Brennan and Marshall, two of the most liberal Justices of the 20th century.

Justice Scalia similarly favored a narrow reading of a public corruption theory called extortion under color of official right under the Hobbs Act. In 1992 in Evans v. United States, the majority held that extortion under color of official right was basically equivalent to bribery. Justice Scalia joined a dissent by Justice Thomas arguing that bribery and extortion are distinct crimes and that the majority opinion wrongfully resulted in a vast expansion of federal criminal law and the power of federal prosecutors.

Of course, strict interpretation of the statute sometimes meant the defendant lost. For example, Brogan v. United States involved the false statements statute that criminalizes lying to the government about material matters. Lower courts had created an exception to the statute, known as the “exculpatory no,” holding that prosecution could not be based on a defendant’s mere denial of guilt. Justice Scalia wrote the majority opinion holding the text of the statute contains no such exception and stating “[c]ourts may not create their own limitations on legislation, no matter how alluring the policy arguments for doing so . . . .” (He also noted the defendant’s concession that “under a ‘literal reading’ of the statute he loses.” If you had made that concession and then saw that Justice Scalia was writing the opinion in your case, you knew it was not going to be a good day.)

Recently in Yates v. United States the defendant was charged with obstruction of justice, a twenty-year felony, for throwing overboard some undersized fish that were evidence he had violated fishing regulations. During oral argument Justice Scalia expressed outrage that the government had brought such a case. But in the end he refused to join the five-Justice majority reversing the conviction on the questionable ground that fish were not “tangible objects” within the meaning of the law. Instead he joined with Justice Kagan in dissent, arguing that the plain wording of the statute compelled a ruling in favor of the government. He clearly thought the prosecution was misguided, but did not believe the solution was for the Court to adopt a strained interpretation of the statute that was contrary to its plain language.

gorsuch

Judge Gorsuch and White Collar Crime

Would Justice Gorsuch channel Justice Scalia when it comes to white collar crime? It’s always a bit dicey trying to predict how a judge would behave on the Supreme Court based on his appellate opinions. Appellate judges, of course, are bound by Supreme Court precedent, so they generally don’t have the same freedom and opportunities to decide novel legal questions. But there is reason to believe Justice Gorsuch’s approach would indeed look a lot like Justice Scalia’s.

Judge Gorsuch shares Justice Scalia’s belief in strict construction of the Constitution according to the intent of its framers. In a widely-quoted concurrence in Cordova v. City of Albuquerque, he wrote:

Ours is the job of interpreting the Constitution. And that document isn’t some inkblot on which litigants may project their hopes and dreams . . .  but a carefully drafted text judges are charged with applying according to its original public meaning.

Judge Gorsuch also appears to share the concerns of Justice Scalia about overcriminalization and sweeping criminal statutes that may place too much power in the hands of prosecutors. In a law review article in 2010 Judge Gorsuch wrote: “What happens to individual freedom and equality—and to our very conception of law itself—when the criminal code comes to cover so many facets of daily life that prosecutors can almost choose their targets with impunity?”

Judge Gorsuch’s strict textualist approach to statutory interpretation has occasionally led him, as it did Justice Scalia, to rulings that narrowly interpret criminal statutes and favor criminal defendants. One example involves a statute that makes it a crime for an individual with a felony conviction to possess a firearm, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). The 10th Circuit has agreed with the majority of courts of appeal that the government in such a case needs to prove only that the defendant knew he possessed a gun and does not need to prove the defendant knew he had a felony conviction.

Judge Gorsuch disagrees. In a classic Scalia-esque statutory interpretation argument, he has argued that the plain language of the statute requires the government to prove both – an interpretation that, if adopted, would favor defendants and place a heavier burden on the government. In one of the cases, United States v. Games-Perez, notice Judge Gorsuch’s language in his concurrence expressing disagreement with his colleagues:

Our duty to follow precedent sometimes requires us to make mistakes. Unfortunately, this is that sort of case. . . .

I recognize that precedent compels me to join the court’s judgment. But candor also compels me to suggest that we might be better off applying the law Congress wrote than the one [the court’s earlier decision] hypothesized. It is a perfectly clear law as it is written, plain in its terms, straightforward in its application. Of course, if Congress wishes to revise the plain terms of [the statute] it is free to do so anytime. But there is simply no right or reason for this court to be in that business.

Those final two sentences could have been lifted straight out of a Justice Scalia opinion: the statute says what it says, and if there’s a problem it is up to Congress to fix it, not the court.

But what a marked contrast to the writing style of Justice Scalia, who was famous for disagreeing with his colleagues in the most sarcastic and acerbic terms. In addition to being a gifted writer, Judge Gorsuch displays much more of a traditional judicial temperament than the man he would replace.

Later, dissenting from a denial of a rehearing en banc in the same case, Judge Gorsuch wrote a impassioned defense of the right of criminal defendants to be convicted only if the government proves every element of the offense: “There can be few graver injustices in a society governed by the rule of law than imprisoning a man without requiring proof of his guilt under the written laws of the land.”

Another 10th Circuit case, United States v. Makkar, involved a prosecution under the analogous drug act, which criminalizes selling substances that mimic a listed controlled substance. In another pro-defendant decision, Judge Gorsuch reversed the convictions and held that the plain language of the statute requires the government to prove the analogous substance had the same chemical structure as the controlled substance, not merely that it had the same effects on the user.

In addition to strictly interpreting criminal statutes, Judge Gorsuch, like Justice Scalia, has a history of holding prosecutors’ feet to the fire and insisting they play by the rules. For example, in United States v. Farr, a tax fraud case, Judge Gorsuch ruled in favor of the defendant and held that prosecutors had improperly convicted him under a theory of tax fraud different from the one that was charged in the indictment.

In a case that might be of interest in the current political environment, Judge Gorsuch also wrote the opinion in United States v. Hasan, reversing the perjury conviction of a Somali refugee. He ruled the trial court had erred by finding the defendant was not entitled to an interpreter when testifying in the grand jury. This was under the extremely deferential “plain error” standard of review, and it would have been easy for an appellate judge simply to defer to the judgment of the trial court. If opponents try to portray Judge Gorsuch as a cold-hearted conservative who cares nothing about the most vulnerable among us, we might see this opinion trotted out in response.

Overall, Judge Gorsuch’s opinions related to criminal law are largely uncontroversial and closely adhere to governing precedent. He definitely takes a strict approach to the interpretation of texts. He does not appear to be results-oriented and will not hesitate to rule against the government and in favor of a criminal defendant if he believes that is required. His approach to criminal law in general and white collar crime in particular does seem to be very similar to Justice Scalia’s.

At least as far as criminal law is concerned, Democrats thinking about opposing his nomination should probably consider they could do a lot worse.

Click here to join the Sidebars mailing list and receive e-mail notification of future posts.

White Collar Crime, Prosecutorial Discretion, and the Supreme Court

Does the Supreme Court still believe in prosecutorial discretion? A string of cases over the past few years has to make you wonder.

Prosecutorial discretion – the power to decide whether to bring criminal charges, who to charge, what crimes to charge, and how ultimately to resolve the case – is a fundamental component of the criminal justice system. The legislature enacts the laws but the executive branch enforces them, which includes making judgments about when and how to bring a criminal case.

On the macro level, this means setting national and local law enforcement priorities and making decisions about the deployment of finite prosecutorial resources. Different administrations at different times have declared areas such as health care fraud, narcotics, illegal immigration, or terrorism to be top priorities and have allocated resources accordingly. Such decisions necessarily mean other areas will not receive as much attention; a dollar spent fighting terrorism is a dollar that can’t be spent investigating mortgage fraud.

On the micro level, prosecutorial discretion involves deciding whether to pursue criminal charges in a given case and what charges to pursue. Factors such as the nature of the offense, strength of the evidence, the nature and extent of any harm, adequacy of other potential remedies, any mitigating circumstances or remedial efforts by the accused, and prosecutorial resources and priorities all may come into play.

For federal prosecutors, policies governing how they should exercise this discretion are set forth in the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual, and in particular in the Principles of Federal Prosecution. The Principles contain detailed guidance concerning when to bring charges, what kind of charges to bring, and how to handle criminal cases, in order to “promote the reasoned exercise of prosecutorial discretion by attorneys for the government.” USAM 9-27.110.

doj seal

Prosecutorial Discretion and White Collar Crime

Prosecutorial discretion is particularly important in white collar crime. With non-white collar, or “street” crimes, the parameters of the offense tend to be more clearly defined and charging decisions often are more black and white. If there is a body on the street with nine bullets in it, you pretty clearly have a homicide. If authorities can identify who did it, that person will almost certainly be charged. The prosecutor is not likely to say, “Due to our limited resources and other priorities, we’ll take a pass on this one and let the victim’s family file a civil suit instead” – not if the prosecutor wants to keep her job, anyway.

But white collar crime is full of gray areas. White collar prosecutors deal with sometimes nebulous concepts such as “fraud” and “corruption,” and white collar statutes are written in notoriously broad and general terms. As a result, it often falls much more to the prosecutor to determine whether something is a crime at all and to decide what kind of conduct merits a prosecution.

For example, suppose a hedge fund goes belly-up, and the investors who lost their money claim they were misled about their investment. Was it fraud, or was it merely aggressive – maybe even sleazy – sales tactics followed by incompetence, mismanagement, or just bad luck? Unlike a homicide, robbery, or drug case, at the outset it may not be clear that a crime has been committed. A prosecutor might well conclude, “If I investigated this for two years, perhaps at the end I would have a provable criminal fraud case – but perhaps not. Given my resources and priorities, I’m going to focus on other cases and let the SEC and private plaintiffs pursue civil and administrative penalties in this one.”

Given these potential gray areas, what’s the best way to deter and prosecute white collar crime? Imagine two different regimes. In System #1, Congress drafts broad statutes that proscribe conduct such as fraud in general terms, in order to encompass as much potentially criminal conduct as possible. It is left to the Executive Branch, through prosecutors, to enforce those statutes and determine which cases to pursue – with that discretion tempered, of course, by the oversight of the courts.

In System #2, Congress tries to write very precise and detailed statutes that are as specific as possible in defining the prohibited conduct. Such white collar statutes would leave fewer gray areas and less room for prosecutorial discretion – in other words, they would be more like street crimes. The downside of such a system would be that it necessarily creates loopholes: the more precisely you define criminal concepts like fraud, the greater the opportunity for individuals engaged in what should be criminal conduct to skirt the law’s prohibitions.

Historically, white collar criminal law has been closer to System #1: broad statutes prohibit things like fraud or corruption, and prosecutors are entrusted to exercise their discretion to determine how to apply those laws. But in a series of decisions over the past few years, the Supreme Court has signaled it is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with such a system. These decisions have limited several significant white collar statutes, moving us closer to System #2 – although with laws narrowed by the Court rather than by Congress. In the process, the Court has removed discretion from the hands of prosecutors while also making it more difficult to prosecute some criminal conduct.

The Supreme Court Limits Prosecutorial Discretion

The first such case was Skilling v. United States in 2010. Skilling involved the proper interpretation of 18 U.S.C. § 1346, which prohibits schemes to deprive another of the “intangible right of honest services.” Honest services fraud, a species of mail and wire fraud, has been around for decades. Most cases of honest services fraud have involved relatively straightforward allegations of corruption such as bribery, kickbacks, and conflicts of interest.

But prosecutors in some cases stretched the boundaries of the theory, using honest services fraud to prosecute, for example, a university professor who helped students plagiarize work to obtain degrees to which they were not entitled; an IRS employee who improperly browsed through certain tax returns but did nothing with the information; state officials who awarded public sector jobs based on political patronage; and a state official who failed to disclose a potential conflict of interest when state law did not require disclosure. Some of these schemes seemed wrong or dishonest but were far from traditional criminal corruption. The confusion over what actually qualified as a deprivation of honest services led Justice Scalia to argue in 2009 that the law was in a state of “chaos.”

The Supreme Court finally attempted to bring some order out of this chaos in Skilling. The defendant, former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling, argued that the honest services statute should be struck down as unconstitutionally vague, but the Court disagreed. Instead, it limited the law to what it deemed the core of honest services fraud: cases involving bribery and kickbacks.

The holding in Skilling dramatically narrowed the scope of honest services fraud. This successfully removed prosecutors’ ability to use the theory in innovative ways to charge more unusual schemes. But the limitation also created safe harbors for certain conduct, such as self-dealing by elected officials, that is plainly corrupt but may no longer be charged as a violation of honest services.

In 2014, the Supreme Court decided Bond v. United States. (Although not really a white collar case, Bond is instructive as part of the same trend at the Court.) In Bond a jilted wife tried to injure her husband’s lover by sprinkling some caustic chemicals on her mailbox and doorknob. The chemicals caused only a slight skin irritation on the woman’s thumb that was easily treated with cold water. Federal prosecutors subsequently charged Bond using a felony statute that prohibits the use of chemical weapons and carries a penalty of “any term of years” in prison.

The Court ultimately held that the statute did not apply to Bond’s conduct. But an undercurrent of the case was the Court’s obvious concern over the government’s decision to apply a federal law aimed at preventing the horrors of chemical warfare to such a trivial incident. During oral argument, Justice Kennedy told the Solicitor General that it “seems unimaginable that you would bring this prosecution.” Justice Alito remarked, “If you told ordinary people that you were going to prosecute Ms. Bond for using a chemical weapon, they would be flabbergasted.”

This trend continued in 2015 with Yates v. United States. Yates was a commercial fisherman working in the Gulf of Mexico. A fish and wildlife officer boarded his boat to conduct a routine inspection and ended up citing him for having several dozen red grouper on board that were slightly smaller than the legal limit – a civil violation. The officer told Yates to keep the fish until he returned to port, where they would be seized and destroyed. Once the officer left his boat, however, Yates instructed a crew member to throw the undersized fish overboard and replace them with larger ones.

When this ultimately came to light, prosecutors charged Yates with three crimes including obstruction of justice under 18 U.S.C. § 1519, a twenty-year felony. That law prohibits the destruction of “tangible objects” in an effort to obstruct a federal investigation. Captain Yates argued before the Supreme Court that fish were not “tangible objects” within the meaning of this statute. The Court ultimately ruled in his favor, but only by adopting what I believe was an unnatural and strained interpretation of the law.

But Yates is actually more significant for what it revealed about the Court’s views on prosecutorial discretion and charging decisions. During oral argument, the Justices were clearly disturbed by the application of a twenty-year felony to this fish-dumping episode. Justice Scalia asked what kind of “mad prosecutor” would charge Yates with a twenty-year offense, and sarcastically suggested perhaps it was the same prosecutor who had charged Bond with a chemical weapons violation. Later in the oral argument Justice Kennedy remarked, “It seems to me that we should just not use the concept [prosecutorial discretion] or refer to the concept at all anymore.”

The Court’s skepticism about prosecutorial discretion surfaced again this past spring in McDonnell v. United States. In reversing the corruption convictions of the former Virginia governor, the Court adopted a narrow definition of “official act” for purposes of federal bribery law. At oral argument and in its opinion the Court imagined federal prosecutors targeting elected officials for simply attending a lunch where a supporter bought them a bottle of wine, or for attending a ballgame as the guest of homeowners who earlier had sought the official’s help.

The narrow definition of “official act,” the Court concluded, was necessary to prevent politically-motivated prosecutions and the criminalization of routine political courtesies. But critics of the Court’s decision – including me – argue that the result is to shield a great deal of corrupt conduct that is precisely what the law of bribery aims to prevent.

The Future of Prosecutorial Discretion

In these recent cases, when faced with the interpretation of white collar crimes such as bribery, honest services fraud, and obstruction of justice, the Court’s approach has been to interpret the statutes narrowly and consequently to remove charging discretion from federal prosecutors. A moment during the Yates oral argument is particularly illuminating. The Justices asked Assistant Solicitor General Roman Martinez what guidance prosecutors followed when deciding what kind of charges to bring, and that led to this exchange:

MR.MARTINEZ:  Your Honor, the ­. . . my understanding of the U.S. Attorney’s Manual is that the general guidance that’s given is that the prosecutor should charge ­­once the decision is made to bring a criminal prosecution, the prosecutor should charge the ­­the offense that’s the most severe under the law. That’s not a hard and fast rule, but that’s kind of the default principle.  In this case that was Section 1519.

JUSTICE SCALIA:  Well, if that’s going to be the Justice Department’s position, then we’re going to have to be much more careful about how extensive statutes are.  I mean, if you’re saying we’re always going to prosecute the most severe, I’m going to be very careful about how severe I make statutes.

MR. MARTINEZ:  Your Honor, that’s ­­. . .

JUSTICE SCALIA:  Or ­­how much coverage I give to severe statutes.

MR. MARTINEZ:  That’s ­­– that’s not what we were saying.  I think we’re not always going to prosecute every case, and obviously we’re going to exercise our discretion. . . .

As Martinez attempted to point out, the real-world exercise of prosecutorial discretion is far more nuanced than Justice Scalia suggested. It’s true that the Principles of Federal Prosecution provide as a general rule – as they have for decades – that once a decision to bring charges is made a prosecutor generally should charge “the most serious offense that is consistent with the nature of the defendant’s conduct, and that is likely to result in a sustainable conviction.” USAM 9-27.300. But the Principles also recognize the need for prosecutors to consider the nature and circumstances of a particular case, the purpose of criminal law, and law enforcement priorities. What charges are “consistent with the nature of the defendant’s conduct” is also a matter of judgment and discretion. And of course considerable discretion also is involved earlier in the process, when deciding whether to bring charges at all.

But this exchange suggests the Court may believe it needs to interpret criminal statutes more narrowly because it cannot always trust prosecutors to exercise sound judgment when enforcing broadly-written statutes. As Justice Kennedy suggested during the Yates argument, it may be that the Court no longer thinks of prosecutorial discretion as a viable concept.

Of course, some critics of federal prosecutors will welcome this development and suggest it is long overdue. And some will point out that, for prosecutors, this may be considered a self-inflicted wound. The charging decisions in cases like Yates and Bond in particular may be what led the Justices openly to question whether prosecutors should continue to be entrusted with the same degree of discretion.

But it would be unfortunate if the Justices truly come to believe they cannot rely on prosecutors to exercise sound judgment in charging decisions. One can always argue about the merits of particular cases, but overall our system of broadly-written statutes enforced by the sound exercise of prosecutorial discretion has worked pretty well. If the Court continues to chip away at those statutes due to concerns about controlling prosecutors, it will continue to create safe harbors for some conduct that is clearly criminal.

It’s particularly inappropriate for the Court to limit these statutes based on hypotheticals that have no basis in reality, as it did in McDonnell. When we start seeing widespread prosecutions of politicians for accepting legal campaign contributions and attending Rotary Club breakfasts, then maybe we can talk about the need to curb prosecutorial discretion. But simply because we can imagine a parade of horribles based on the broad terms of a white collar statute does not mean that prosecutors are actually marching in that parade.

At the McDonnell oral argument, Justice Breyer noted that narrowing the definition of bribery might mean that a certain amount of corrupt conduct will go unpunished. Unfortunately, for now that appears to be a risk the Court is willing to take.

Click here to join the Sidebars mailing list and receive e-mail notifications of future posts.

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.

Click here to join the Sidebars mailing list and receive e-mail notifications of future posts.