May 03, 2016

The Supreme Court Needs to Be Consistent on Corruption Law

By Stuart McPhail

On Monday, the Supreme Court handed down a decision upholding a Baltimore police officer’s conviction for extortion under a key federal corruption statute called the Hobbs Act.  In the majority opinion, Justice Alito wrote that the officer’s agreement with an auto body shop’s owner to accept kickbacks in exchange for directing car accident repair work to the shop constituted extortion under the law.  And despite the dispute among the Justices about whether the payer in the extortion scheme may or may not be part of the conspiracy, all Justices agreed that the existence of an agreement between the parties is what defined a conspiracy and differentiated it from other lawful relationships. 

That decision stands in stark contrast to Justice Alito’s concern in the Court’s argument last week over whether or not to uphold former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s conviction for accepting a bribe.  There, Justice Alito expressed a worry, echoed by other Justices, that the need for a jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the bribe payor and government official reached an agreement—that a quid pro quo existed—does not create a clear enough line between lawful constituent services and an illegal exchange.  

If an agreement, however, is sufficient to distinguish a lawful financial relationship from a criminal conspiracy, then it must also be sufficient to distinguish a lawful constituent relationship from an unlawful bribery scheme.  

And the fact that the defendants in question are state officials being charged under a federal law is irrelevant.  Or, at least, that’s what Justice Alito found in the majority opinion Monday when he rejected federalism concerns raised in prosecuting a municipal police officer—an even more local official than Virginia’s Governor—under a federal extortion statute. 

Of course, attempting to discern a Justice’s ultimate holding from his questions in oral argument is little better than reading tea leaves.  Nonetheless, we hope Justice Alito’s reasoning in Monday’s decision sufficiently answer’s Justice Alito’s questions in McDonnell.

Justice Breyer’s Concern Should Not Free McDonnell

In 2010, the Governor of Virginia, Robert McDonnell, accepted more than $100,000 in cash and luxury goods from a Virginia businessman, Johnnie Williams. That money bought Williams access to the Governor and the Governor’s help in encouraging the State to fund studies to benefit William’s business. And the Governor followed through on that offer of help, making subordinates available for Williams to lobby and prodding those subordinates for updates on progress on Williams’s requests. Read More ›

Ski Trip Fundraiser Doesn’t Raise a Lot of Money for Members of Congress

In early March, a quartet of congressional Republicans linked arms and formed a joint fundraising committee (JFC) that could nominally benefit each of their respective re-election campaigns. The new committee, called Team Telluride, ultimately allowed the members of Congress to hit the slopes in Colorado under the guise of fundraising for their political operations. Read More ›

Rubio: Just kidding, I’m not actually running for president

Last week, we wrote about how Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)—who is not running for president—responded to a letter from the FEC questioning his acceptance of excessive donations by transferring the money to his general election account. Read More ›

Newly Disclosed Internal Documents Reveal Group’s Lies to IRS, FEC

When the Commission on Hope, Growth, and Opportunity (“CHGO”) formed in March 2010, it told the IRS that it was a “public welfare” organization focused on advocating for “sustained and expanding economic growth” that would not “spend any money attempting to influence” any “election.” When the FEC began looking into CHGO’s activities after the agency received complaints from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (“CREW”) and other groups about the ads CHGO ran in the 2010 election, CHGO’s counsel told the agency in June 2011 that the group was a “social welfare organization” that “conducts a public-outreach effort focused on macro-economic issues and functions as an economic ‘think tank.’” It even sent the FEC a copy of a “macro-economic analysis” that CHGO purportedly funded as an example of its academic bona fides. Read More ›

Marco Rubio isn’t running for president. Someone tell his campaign.

Marco Rubio is not running for president. There is no doubt about this fact; he made a big speech a month ago to make that clear. So when the FEC sent his campaign a letter about excessive donations they accepted during the primary, the campaign responded by returning those illegal donations, right? Not quite. Read More ›

Rep. Hunter’s Response to FEC Inquiry About Use of Campaign Funds Raises More Questions

Last week, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) sent Rep. Duncan D. Hunter’s (R-CA) campaign a letter requesting information about campaign expenditures that appeared to be for personal rather than political purposes. In particular, the FEC flagged payments in 2015 totaling $1,300 to a video game company and $1,650 to a private school called Christian Unified Schools that Rep. Hunter’s children attend. Read More ›

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