Is Political Corruption Even Illegal Anymore?
Recent overturned convictions of Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver leave many New Yorkers frustrated and wondering if its public servants will ever be held accountable for using their offices for personal gain.
Dean Skelos, former New York State Senate Majority Leader, was convicted in 2015 on Federal corruption charges (Hobbs Act conspiracy, Hobbs Act extortion, honest services wire fraud conspiracy, and federal program bribery) for voting for legislation that would benefit three companies, in exchange for which those companies provided money, hundreds of thousands of dollars of consultation work, and a no-show job to Mr. Skelos’s son.
Sheldon Silver, former Speaker of the New York State Assembly, was also convicted in 2015 on Federal corruption charges (honest services fraud, Hobbs Act extortion, and money laundering). In exchange for bribes in the form of referrals from a doctor to a law firm with which Silver was associated, Silver secured state research grants for that doctor, used his influence to assist the doctor’s children get jobs, among other favors. Silver also accepted bribes from real estate developers in the form of referrals through a different law firm, in exchange for voting to support tax-exempt financing for the developers as well as rent and tax abatement legislation.
Meanwhile, McDonnell v. United States, another case involving a corrupt politician, was before the Supreme Court of the United States. In the McDonnell case, the former Virginia Governor and his wife were indicted on bribery charges for performing official acts to promote and induce Virginia’s state universities to research a nutritional supplement in exchange for gifts and loans from the nutritional supplement company and its CEO to the governor and his wife. The Supreme Court decided in 2016 that the definition of “official act” provided in the jury instructions was too broad.
Both Skelos and Silver appealed their convictions challenging the sufficiency of the evidence and, based on the McDonnell decision that was issued after their convictions, challenging the jury instructions used in their cases.
Both of their convictions were overturned, but not because the Court didn’t think they did anything wrong. The jury instructions allowed too broad an interpretation of what constitutes an “official act”. Basically, politicians can be convicted for accepting bribes in exchange for performing official duties, but not for acts beyond those official duties.
Hope springs eternal, however. The Court in both cases soundly rejected the challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence. The U.S. Attorney’s office has indicated that it will retry these cases, and certainly the jury instructions will be different.
Alanna C. Iacono is an associate practicing elder law, real estate law, concentrating on commercial and residential real estate transactions, landlord-tenant, foreclosure and condominium/HOA law. She can be reached by phone at 866-303-9595 toll free or 845-764-9656 and by email.