Ex-officials use court ruling to attack bribery convictions

AP News
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Posted: Aug 17, 2016 5:31 PM

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Months after the U.S. Supreme Court made it more difficult for prosecutors to prove bribery by a public official, a longtime Pennsylvania congressman, a former Virginia lawmaker and others are relying on the decision to challenge their convictions.

Former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and former lawmaker Phil Hamilton may be among the first but are likely not the last defendants to invoke the Supreme Court's decision in June that overturned the bribery conviction of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell.

The Supreme Court said McDonnell's actions benefiting a businessman who gave him gifts may have been distasteful but weren't illegal because it wasn't clear what the businessman got in return.

"The issue is whether or not he agreed to accept something of value in exchange for an official act. What was it that they got in return that goes beyond what any constituent might get," said white-collar defense lawyer John J. Pease III, who formerly prosecuted federal corruption cases in Philadelphia.

Fattah, a Democrat who represented the Philadelphia region in Congress for two decades until his 22-count conviction in early June, cited the McDonnell case this week in asking to have the bribery charge overturned. He attacked the other counts on different grounds. Fattah is set to be sentenced Oct. 4.

In Virginia, former Republican lawmaker Phil Hamilton asked the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this week to let him file a new application for relief in light of the McDonnell decision. Hamilton was convicted in 2011 of securing a job as director of a teacher-training center that he helped create with taxpayer money. He is serving a nearly 10-year prison term in the bribery and extortion case.

In Arkansas, a state human services official who pleaded guilty to receiving bribes testified against the source of the money, mental health contractor Ted Suhl, at Suhl's bribery trial this summer. Suhl's lawyers cited McDonnell's case in trying to have the bribery charges dismissed before trial, but were unsuccessful, and the jury convicted him of bribery last month.

The former official, Steven B. Jones, testified that he was having second thoughts about his bribery plea given the Supreme Court decision. He is serving a 2-1/2 year sentence.

"At the time I pled guilty, I thought I was guilty," Jones testified, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. But he said he was no longer sure since he said he took money but never performed any "official acts."

"I never did anything for Ted," Jones testified at the July trial.

The individual facts of each case will determine the likely success of any appeals based on the ex-Virginia governor's case, Pease said.

"It's not going to be a Band-Aid for all public corruption cases, but there will be appeals based on McDonnell," he said.