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Political favors and wealthy donors

On September 18, a three-judge federal appeals panel threw out the corruption conviction of former New York State Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his son Adam. Father and son had been convicted of fraud and bribery, and Dean of using his office to pressure his company to give his son a mostly no-show job.

A couple of months before that a different appeals court threw out the corruption conviction of former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who had been convicted of corruption charges. In both cases, the courts reversed the conviction because the definition of “official act” that had been given to the juries was too broad.

The definition of “official act” had been narrowed by a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell and his wife Maureen McDonnell.

They were indicted by federal authorities after they accepted $175,000 in gifts and other benefits from a businessman Jonnie Williams, who was in the nutritional supplements business. According to the court’s decision, Williams was hoping that Virginia’s public universities would perform studies on one of Williams’ company’s products called Anatabloc. While accepting all those gifts and perks, Robert arranged meetings for Williams with other officials, hosted events for Williams’ company and discussed the possibility of research with others in the government.

Federal prosecutors called these meetings and discussions “official acts.” But the Supreme Court, said no, these are not official acts. The high court wrote, “The government’s expansive interpretation of ‘official act’ would raise significant constitutional concerns. Conscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time.”

The decision said that an official act would be something more along the lines of passing a law, or giving a subordinate instructions to initiate a research study of the product in question. But what the decision did not address was that the vast majority of the public are not in a position to offer the governor $175,000 in gifts and perks in advance of asking for a favor or advocating for a specific policy position. It’s the quid quo pro between the gifts and the actions that cause concern. If wealthy people and organizations are able to give politicians huge gifts and openly accept favors from elected officials, as long as those favors are not deemed official actions by the Supreme Court, then that’s just one more way for wealthy organizations and individuals to put their interests ahead of the interests of everyone else.

As for Dean Skelos, who allegedly used his powerful position to get a mostly no-show job for his son Adam, and Sheldon Silver, who collected millions in bribes, they will be retried. In the meantime, they have been convicted by juries of serious crimes, yet are still free to walk the streets.

Todd Kaminsky, a former corruption prosecutor who now holds Skelos’s senate seat, said of the trial, “The county contracting process was laid bare and exposed for what it is; there was no oversight. Something got done because someone made a call and said ‘I need this for my son,’ and [the fact] that the person responsible for doing that is free without a conviction I think is very concerning for people.”

He’s not the only one who feels that way. Long Island Congressman Tom Suozzi (D-NY 3rd) on September 27 introduced the Close Official Acts Loophole (COAL) Act, which he calls “a bipartisan bill with Republican Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA 8th) aimed at clamping down on corruption by elected officials.

“We can’t allow corruption convictions to be overturned based on legal technicalities,” said Suozzi. “Passage of the bipartisan COAL Act would clarify congressional intent and close the loophole opened by the Supreme Court. Those who profit on the public’s trust for personal gain must never be allowed to avoid punishment when we have the power to fix it. While the bill will not have an impact on the existing cases involving Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver, we must close this loophole to stop this from happening in the future. I am open to hearing additional suggestions from prosecutors and others on how to further strengthen anti-corruption laws in New York State and the United States.”

We think the COAL Act is a good idea and worthy of public support.


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