Articles Posted in Public Corruption

Politics impacts many of our criminal cases here in Atlanta, throughout Georgia, Florida and Alabama, and in federal cases we do throughout the country. The intersection of politics and criminal prosecutions is especially prevalent in public corruption investigations. Prosecutors often have a political motive in “going after” a particular defendant, and many a prosecutor has made a name for him or herself by bagging a politician. These principles were on full display in the case against Tom Delay, the former Majority Leader of the United States House of Representatives. Last week, the Texas Court of Appeals reversed Delay’s convictions, ruling that he had not committed any crime. The ruling is here.

Delay was known as a hard-charging Republican advocate, whose nickname of “the Hammer” demonstrated his supposedly ruthless tactics. In 2002, Delay wanted to have the Texas Legislature turn solidly Republican, which it did. To accomplish, he asked for a series of corporate political contributions to a campaign committee. Afterwards, that solidly Republican legislature allegedly jiggered the voting districts so that the Texas federal delegation was far more likely to elect Republicans to the U.S. Congress. All well and good, hard nosed politics.
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I write and think a lot about how federal criminal cases, and all criminal matters for that matter, intersect with the technological explosions we’ve seen in our lifetime. For example, in earlier posts like this one I’ve written about how courts are grappling with how to apply the principles from the 18th Century enshrined in our Fourth Amendment (no search and seizure unless based on probable cause and a warrant from a Judge) with the 21st century fact that cell phones can be searched and followed from just about anywhere. A few days ago, we heard about another instance where the modern world of the internet intersected with a federal criminal case, resulting in the dismissal of all charges when the Judge concluded that prosecutors violated the Constitution by anonymously posting about the case on a newspaper’s web site.

The basic story goes like this. In the havoc following Hurricane Katrina, there were reports that police officers shot victims of that natural disaster. There was an internal investigation. Cops were interviewed, and were told that they had to answer questions, and that their answers could not be used against them in any subsequent case (we call this “immunized testimony”). State prosecutors thereafter got indictments and convictions. The state appellate courts overturned the convictions, because the immunized testimony WAS used against the cops.
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Federal Criminal Charges were announced yesterday here in Atlanta by the U.S. Attorney. The feds have indicted a well-known State legislator, Representative Tyrone Brooks. According to the indictment, Representative Brooks committed mail fraud, wire fraud, and tax crimes. The grand jury returned a 30-count indictment which charges that, from the mid-1990s through 2012, Brooks solicited contributions from individuals and corporate donors to combat illiteracy and fund other charitable causes, but then used the money to pay personal expenses for himself and his family.

It seems there are three basic sets of crimes alleged in the indictment. First, there are two separate supposed frauds, followed by allegations that Representative Brooks violated the tax laws.
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Here in Atlanta, the local federal Court of Appeals just affirmed a conviction in a mail fraud and bribery white collar case out of Jacksonville, Florida. The case is but the latest saga in the long-running debate over the contours of “honest services fraud”, the species of fraud so often used by federal prosecutors when they go after what they perceive to be “local corruption.” In a 2-1 decision, the majority held that the Defendant’s convictions should be affirmed, even though one of the two judges in the majority had real problems upholding the lower court’s rulings. Judge Hill issued a blistering dissent, perhaps foreshadowing a more full review by the entire court. The case is US. v. Nelson, and can be found here.

Mr. Nelson was the chairman of the board of Jaxport, the entity that basically oversaw the port authority in Jacksonville. The board members worked part-time, were not paid, and were prohibited from voting on any matter in which they had a financial interest.
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Last week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions of Larry Langford, the former mayor of Birmingham, Alabama who was convicted last year on various federal white collar offenses, including mail and wire fraud, bribery, money laundering, and federal tax offenses.

To me, the most interesting aspect of the opinion is the way in which the Court of Appeals discussed the honest services portion of the federal mail and wire fraud charges. As we discussed in this previous post, last summer, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in United States v. Skilling, a case which, in essence, limited the honest services provision of the federal fraud statutes to bribery and kickback schemes.

Before Skilling was decided, many (if not all) federal circuits made a distinction between honest services prosecutions that involved public officials, as opposed to those working in the private sector. At the risk of simplifying the issue too much, it was far easier for the government to prove an honest services violation against a public official. Skilling itself, however, did not distinguish between public officials and private actors, leading some to believe that after Skilling, the prosecution of both public and private officials would be governed by the same standards.

Just a few hours ago the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals sitting here in Atlanta affirmed most, but not all, of the convictions in the long-running saga of US v. Don Siegelman and Richard Scrushy.

Don Siegelman was the Governor of Alabama. Richard Scrushy was the founder and Chief Executive Officer of HealthSouth. The case stemmed from allegations that Governor Siegelman placed Scrushy and others on a State Board in return for a $500,000 payment. The government charged them with a series of crimes relating to alleged public corruption. Specifically, Siegelman and Scrushy were alleged to have violated 18 U.S.C. §666(a)(1)(B), the law that prohibits bribery involving organizations that receive federal funds. The government also charged the defendants with “honest services” mail fraud, and conspiracy to commit same. Finally, Governor Siegelman was charged with obstruction of justice.

While the case was on appeal, the Supreme Court issued the well-known decision in US v. Skilling, a ruling that restricts the scope of the federal “honest services” branch of mail and wire fraud. Each defendant contended that Skilling changed the landscape, and that their convictions must be reversed. Likewise after the verdicts, the defendants uncovered what appeared to be troubling evidence of juror misconduct and exposure to extrajudicial materials.

In this post last week, we announced the Supreme Court’s decision in Skilling v. U.S. The Court held that 18 U.S.C. § 1346, the honest services law that the government has been using to prosecute nearly everything as a federal crime, applies only to bribery and kickback schemes.

The honest services fraud statute simply defines “scheme or artifice to defraud” as used in the mail- and wire fraud statutes to “include a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.” Congress enacted this statute quickly after the Supreme Court, in McNally, held that the fraud statutes were “limited in scope to the protection of property rights.” Congress intended to incorporate pre-McNally case law that had recognized fiduciary duties as intangible rights to honest services and a breach of those duties as fraud.

The majority’s rationale for limiting the honest services fraud statute to only bribes and kickbacks was that such cases constituted the “core” of pre-McNally honest services fraud cases and that statutes should be construed, where possible, rather than invalidated. Because, the Court said, circuit conflicts and disagreements regarding honest services fraud cases were primarily outside the bribery and kickback scheme cases, limiting the application of the statute to those cases would avoid vagueness troubles.

This morning, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinions in three honest services fraud cases: Skilling, Black, and Weyhrauch. We have previously discussed these cases here (discussion of cases and background of honest services fraud,) here (Skilling,) here (Black), and here (Weyhrauch.) In Skilling, the Court limited the federal criminal honest services fraud statute to only bribery and kickback schemes. Based upon that opinion, the Court reversed in Black and Weyhruach. The Court also held that Jeffrey Skilling of Enron fame was not denied a fair trial due to publicity and community prejudice.

We will provide analysis of these opinions next week. In the meantime, the opinion in Skilling is available here; the opinion in Black is available here; and the single-sentence per curium opinion in Weyhrauch is available here.

Last Tuesday, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Black v. U.S. and Weyhrauch v. U.S., two of the three federal honest services fraud cases currently before the Court. On Friday, lawyers for Jeffrey Skilling submitted their brief in the third, Skilling v. U.S. This Monday, the Court set oral arguments for Skilling for March 1, 2010, at least three weeks before it would normally be heard. We have previously discussed these cases here, here, here, and here.

Background

For many years, federal prosecutors successfully argued that the mail fraud and wire fraud laws covered schemes to defraud the people of the “intangible right” to have affairs conducted honestly. Now referred to as “pre-McNally caselaw” this body of law was not uniform; the circuits disagreed on exactly what conduct constituted the illegal conduct at the boundaries of the law. In McNally v. U.S. in 1987, the Supreme Court held:

Yesterday a jury found Georgia criminal defense attorney J. Mark Shelnutt not guilty on all counts. He was acquitted of money laundering, drug conspiracy, and attempted bribery.

Three weeks ago, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears appeals from cases in Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, decided U.S. v. Velez in favor of the defendant. That case involved a money laundering charge against a criminal defense attorney under 18 U.S.C. § 1957. Shelnutt was prosecuted under 18 U.S.C. § 1956, which required federal prosecutors to attempt to prove that ill-gotten gains were used for certain prohibited purposes, including facilitating underlying criminal activity, tax evasion, or evading money laundering statutes. The prosecution was unable to prove its case.

More information in the Shelnutt case can be found here.