Red velvet drapes hang at the back of the courtroom at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, June 20, 2016. 
Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Facing the consequences of a Supreme Court ruling on corruption

Updated

There are a few too many modern examples of congressional corruption, many of which have put elected lawmakers behind bars, but Louisiana’s William Jefferson (D) is particularly memorable. It’s not that his misdeeds were more offensive than others’, but when a member of Congress hides tens of thousands of dollars in cash in his freezer, it tends to stand out.

As of last week, however, Jefferson is going free. The Times-Picayune  reported:

A federal judge in Virginia has thrown out the most substantial charges against former congressman William Jefferson of New Orleans and ordered “his immediate release” from prison while his new sentence is determined. He is five years into a 13-year term for corruption, but seven of the 10 charges against him have been thrown out on appeal.

U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III of Virginia issued the order Wednesday (Oct. 4) indicating he had thrown out Jefferson’s convictions for two counts of soliciting bribes, two counts of wire fraud and three counts of money laundering…. Jefferson’s lawyers exhausted their first avenue of appeal, getting one of his convictions removed, but they renewed their efforts full force following the Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling in the United States v. McDonnell.

Ah yes, U.S. v. McDonnell. For those who may have forgotten about this one, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) and his wife accepted lavish gifts from a dietary supplement executive, including vacations, trips on a private jet, use of a Ferrari, an engraved gold Rolex, high-end clothing, thousands of dollars in golf equipment, and much, much more. In return, the then-governor used his office to intervene on behalf of his wealthy benefactor.

McDonnell was tried and convicted of 11 criminal counts, but the Supreme Court disagreed with the outcome. In a unanimous ruling, the justices sided with the Virginia Republican and narrowed the scope of federal bribery laws – focusing on the governor’s half of the quid-pro-quo.

“Setting up a meeting, hosting an event, or calling an official (or agreeing to do so) merely to talk about a research study or to gather additional information,” does not meet the definition of “an official act,” the court wrote.

So, under the Supreme Court’s vision, if a contractor gave a senator a bag full of money, and the senator in turn agreed to guarantee a government contract for the person bribing him, that would be illegal. But practically anything short of that is considered routine and permissible.

The standards are now so low that William “Cash in the Freezer” Jefferson can go free, because based on the framework established by the high court, the former Democratic congressman didn’t do enough to help those who gave him money. From the Associated Press’ report:

The definition of an official act was a key element in the Jefferson case ever since charges were first filed. Defense lawyers argued Jefferson was acting as a private business consultant when he accepted payments from a Kentucky businessman, Vernon Jackson, who sought Jefferson’s help in developing telecommunications deals in Africa and with the U.S. military.

Prosecutors, though, said Jefferson was cashing in on the influence he wielded as a member of Congress and was taking bribes for actions that are routine for a member of Congress who is expected to provide service to his constituents.

That was enough to put Jefferson away, right up until the Supreme Court changed the game.

Federal prosecutors have until next week to decide whether to retry the former congressman on those counts. All of this remains especially relevant right now because Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) is facing corruption allegations in a case that’s ongoing. Thanks to the Supreme Court, the New Jersey Democrat probably likes his chances.