Corruption or politics? SC weighs new bribery case as more clashes are brewing

The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.  (Getty Images)
The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. (Getty Images)

Summary

The justices have raised the bar for prosecutions, but questions remain.

WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court for years has been making it more challenging for prosecutors to bring corruption cases against public officials, guided by the belief that some of the dealmaking and fundraising in the political realm is unseemly but not illegal.

A new batch of cases making their way through the courts shows that where to draw the line remains in flux.

In New York, a U.S. appeals court recently revived the prosecution of a former lieutenant governor after a trial judge earlier tossed the charges. In Ohio, a group of top former Justice Department officials is criticizing the bribery prosecution of a former Cincinnati City Council member whose political-action committee took money from undercover FBI agents posing as businessmen working with a developer.

And the Supreme Court jumps back into the fray on Monday in a case that examines the viability of prosecutions against officials who take gratuities after performing actions that helped their benefactors.

City contracts, then a check

The justices will hear arguments in an appeal by James Snyder, the former mayor of Portage, Ind., who was convicted of bribery in 2021.

Portage needed new garbage trucks when Snyder took office, so he arranged a public bidding process. The city eventually awarded two contracts worth a combined $1.1 million to a local truck dealership whose owners Snyder was frequently calling and texting at the time. Not long after the second contract was awarded, the dealership gave Snyder a $13,000 check.

The former mayor said the money was an upfront payment for future consulting services he was to provide. Prosecutors said the money was an illegal reward for Snyder directing city business to the dealership.

Snyder, a Republican, was sentenced to 21 months in prison. The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction last year, in a decision that highlighted a split in the lower courts on whether federal bribery law covers gratuities paid after a public official takes action, as opposed to payments agreed upon ahead of time.

The Supreme Court is poised to resolve that disagreement.

Snyder’s lawyers said the prosecution’s theory would potentially criminalize all sorts of thank-you gifts that constituents give to public officials, as well as campaign contributions made in recognition of an official’s past actions. The Justice Department in response said Snyder’s parade of horribles wasn’t grounded in reality. Gratuities have long been viewed as a type of corrupt payment that can be addressed under the antibribery statute used against Snyder, the department said.

A decision is expected by late June.

Wins for the defense

The latest case comes on the heels of Supreme Court rulings last year that threw out a pair of corruption convictions stemming from the tenure of former Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The court in one of those cases sided with longtime Cuomo aide Joseph Percoco, who had been prosecuted for taking payments to assist a developer during a period when he had left his state job to run Cuomo’s re-election campaign. The decision didn’t accept all of Percoco’s arguments, but the court found that the jury instructions in the case had been flawed.

In 2020, the Supreme Court unanimously tossed a pair of public-corruption convictions in the New Jersey scandal known as Bridgegate. And in a unanimous 2016 ruling, the court invalidated the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Some lawyers have applauded these rulings as a safeguard against prosecutorial overreach, saying the court needed to restrain the Justice Department from using broadly worded fraud statutes in ways Congress never intended.

“I think it’s wrong to take away from these cases that the court doesn’t want to do anything about public corruption," said Temple University law Prof. Lauren Ouziel. “I’m not that cynical."

Others say the court has gone too far, effectively blessing a range of corrupt conduct.

“In the Snyder case, the court stands on the precipice of further hindering the ability of the federal government to guard against corruption," said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Contribution cases to come

More cases could land at the high court soon. The Cincinnati case, now on appeal, has drawn an unusual amount of interest from former Justice Department leaders. They argue federal prosecutors went too far in pursuing former city councilman Alexander “P.G." Sittenfeld, who was convicted of soliciting $20,000 in bribes for his political-action committee.

Prosecutors alleged that Sittenfeld, a Democrat, took the money in exchange for promising to vote for a development project.

Sittenfeld, who is serving a 16-month prison sentence, said he was simply a pro-development politician who touted those views while raising funds from developers. The First Amendment protects political donations, he noted, and said he was constitutionally entitled to solicit them.

Sittenfeld has drawn support from three former U.S. attorneys general—William Barr, John Ashcroft and Michael Mukasey—as well as former Obama White House counsel Greg Craig. A group of business executives, including from Google and Procter & Gamble, also filed a brief in support of Sittenfeld, citing free-speech concerns.

“Without a clear line, the resultant political environment is a minefield," the executives said.

In New York, the state’s former Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin has pledged to petition the Supreme Court after an appeals court revived bribery charges against him dating from his time as a state senator.

Benjamin, a Democrat, is fighting charges that he funneled a $50,000 state grant to a real-estate developer’s nonprofit in Harlem in exchange for illegal campaign contributions. A trial judge threw out most of the case in 2022, saying prosecutors hadn’t alleged an explicit agreement between Benjamin and the developer. But the judge also noted that there was “confusion among the courts" about how bribery laws apply to campaign contributions.

The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month said the prosecution was valid and could move forward. The court said it didn’t matter that the alleged agreement between Benjamin and the developer wasn’t spelled out, because both men understood the pact.

Benjamin’s alleged deal “would not become legal if he simply avoided memorializing it expressly in words or in writing," the appeals court said.

Write to Jan Wolfe at jan.wolfe@wsj.com and C. Ryan Barber at ryan.barber@wsj.com

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