Saturday, September 17, 2016

GateHouse: The vagaries of political corruption

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse Media
September 16, 2016
Corruption has been around as long as people have sought to govern themselves. Today, has genuine corruption been clouded by an overzealous, and often misguided, effort to redefine wrong doing?
The U.S. Justice Department decided last week to drop all charges against former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that vacated his original corruption conviction.
McDonnell’s case stemmed from more than $175,000 in loans and gifts — a Rolex watch, vacations, partial payments for a daughter’s wedding reception among them — that the governor and his family received from a Richmond businessman.
The gifts were not barred by Virginia law, reported the Washington Post. But federal prosecutors said the businessman’s generosity was part of an illegal quid pro quo arrangement.
“There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that. But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. “It is instead with the broader legal implications of the Government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.”
For federal prosecutors, the decision will likely make it more difficult to use federal bribery, extortion and fraud statutes against public officials.
In October, the U.S. Supreme Court’s first case of the new term also deals with political corruption, but this time in a different context.
In 2005, Puerto Rico Sen. Hector Martínez–Maldonado supported legislation that benefited Ranger American, a security company owned by Juan Bravo-Fernandez. As the bill progressed through the commonwealth’s Legislative Assembly, Bravo-Fernandez treated the senator to a lavish Las Vegas weekend, including hotel, meals, and a $1,000 ticket to a boxing title bout. Shortly after the trip, the bill passed.
Federal authorities indicted the men for allegedly conspiring to give and accept a bribe in connection with a federal program, traveling across state lines to do so, and exchanging the bribe itself.
According to Garrett Epps’ article in The Atlantic, Martínez–Maldonado and Bravo-Fernandez were acquitted of conspiring to exchange a bribe, and travelling to exchange a bribe. Now, the government wants to try them for actually exchanging the bribe. The men have invoked the double jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S Constitution.
Epps quoted Randall Eliason of American University “broad statutes prohibit things like fraud or corruption, and prosecutors are entrusted to exercise their discretion to determine how to apply those laws.” Eliason continued, “(I)n a series of decisions over the past few years, the Supreme Court has signaled it is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with such a system.”
On a state level the same argument rages on. Michael Veon, a former Democratic leader in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, was convicted in 2012 on a number of charges, including conflict of interest.
Although Veon spent five years in prison he is in a battle to clear his name. In May, his appeal was heard by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The justices questioned prosecutors’ interpretation of the conflict-of-interest statute, taking on the “frightening” effect Veon’s conviction could have on public officials around the state, reported The Legal Intelligencer.
Veon’s lawyer argued that the statute’s definition of “private pecuniary gain” was vague and overbroad, “Give a prosecutor that opportunity and they will find private pecuniary gain in any action they want to.”
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice David N. Wecht expressed concern that allowing a jury to convict a politician for gaining intangible benefits could subject any lawmaker to such a charge, reported The Legal Intelligencer.
“It sounds a lot like criminalizing politics,” Wecht said.
These cases point to the growing concern that politicians are easy and attractive targets for prosecutors and lawmakers alike. Elected officials on all levels are held in low esteem. Therefore, it comes as no surprise when lawmakers create a form of “legislative cannibalism” by enacting vague and overly broad criminal laws and ethical guidelines.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book, “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010,” was recently released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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