Monday, May 16, 2016

Criminalizing politics: Corruption prosecutions challenged in state and federal court

The justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court questioned prosecutors' interpretation of the conflict-of-interest statute, tangling with the "frightening" effect former state Rep. Michael Veon's conviction could have on public officials around the state, reported The Legal Intelligencer.
Attorney Joel Sansone, arguing on behalf of Veon, said that not only was the conflict statute inappropriately applied to his client, but that it would open a door that could complicate elected officials' efforts on ­behalf of their constituents.
By telling Veon's jury to consider ­intangible political benefits as "private pecuniary gain" in considering his conflict charge, the trial judge in the case created issues of vagueness and overbreadth that could implicate politicians far beyond Veon himself, Sansone argued, and which make the statute unconstitutional.
"Give a prosecutor that opportunity and they will find private pecuniary gain in any action they want to," he said.
During oral arguments in the State Capitol in Harrisburg, Justice David N. Wecht expressed concern that allowing a jury to convict a politician for gaining intangible benefits could subject any lawmaker in the building to such a charge.
"It sounds a lot like criminalizing politics," Wecht said.
Veon, the former Democratic whip in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, was convicted in 2012 on a number of charges, including conflict of interest, for using public funds to lease office space for his legislative offices through a ­charity he founded. Veon represented a Beaver County-based district in the state House for more than 20 years.
The statute at issue, Section 1103 of the Public Official and Employee Ethics Act, defines conflict of interest as the use by a public official of the authority of his office for private pecuniary benefit.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments last week in the corruption prosecution of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who was convicted of accepting $175,000 worth of benefits – including an engraved Rolex watch, part of a wedding reception for his daughter and his wife's inaugural ball gown – from a businessman, Jonnie R. Williams, Sr., wrote Eric Schnurer for U.S. News and World Report.
 In return, McDonnell instructed state officials to meet with Williams, pressured the state university to study the efficacy of his product (a dietary supplement), allowed a "product launch" at the governor's mansion and personally touted the product.
McDonnell's lawyers argue that the federal laws underpinning his conviction are unconstitutionally "vague." Why? Because it's purportedly impossible to distinguish between outright bribery and everyday politics and government. As Justice Stephen Breyer put it at oral arguments, "For better or for worse, it puts at risk behavior that is common."

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