SCOTUS hears ex-mayor’s appeal: Lot at stake nationally, here

The Supreme Court of the United States heard oral argument Monday in Snyder v. United States, No. 23-108. We told you long before the Supremes agreed to hear the case involving the bribery conviction of former Portage mayor James E. Snyder (R) that the matter had major national implications for substantive law involving gratuities for public officials, as well as for resolving a split between circuits.

“We didn’t really take this case just to decide whether this particular case was correctly decided,” observed Justice Samuel Alito, acknowledging that much more was at stake nationally than a run-of-the-mill corruption case from The Region. “We took it to explore the meaning of this provision. I don’t want to talk about the circumstances of this case. I want to talk about what the law means and what the government’s position has been.”

Based upon questioning and comments from justices during Monday’s argument, This appears to be the latest of a series of cases in which the nation’s high court narrows the ability of federal prosecutors to charge and convict public officials for what has traditionally been deemed as illegal corrupt behavior.

Snyder, as you may recall, was convicted of bribery after accepting $13,000 through his private consulting business from Great Lakes Peterbilt after it was awarded $1.125 million in city contracts for garbage trucks – and the cash-strapped mayor had shown up at the company’s offices seeking a $15,000 loan. There was no evidence that Snyder performed any consulting work to earn his fee. Prosecutors showed that the then-mayor had tailored the specifications of the city contract so that the company would prove to be the only competitive bidder.

Snyder’s appeal claims the language of the law criminalizes only bribery – “a quid pro quo exchange of something of value for official conduct.” However, they contend, the payment here should be defined in the context of gratuities – “payments in appreciation for actions already taken” – rather than a bribe, and the law does not outlaw gratuities absent a quid pro quo. The intermediate appellate court panel, however, opted against drawing such a distinction under 18 U.S.C. 666 (which makes it a crime for certain state or local officials to “corruptly” accept anything of value over $5,000), holding that the law’s provisions covering actions that “influenced or rewarded” a public official for an official act, regardless of whether there was a quid pro quo agreement, includes both bribes and gratuities . . . even as other federal circuit courts had held differently.

Bloomberg Law’s Supreme Court reporter, attorney Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson, writes Monday that the “Court appeared likely to side with a convicted Indiana mayor and continue to pare back the reach of federal corruption statutes.”

Robinson explains, “Justice Brett Kavanaugh said the facts of this case were great for the government, but he was concerned about ensnaring the 19 million state and local officials who are subject to the law. That includes employees of public hospitals and universities, Justice Elena Kagan noted. The government’s broad reading of the statute makes it hard for those individuals to know if they are breaking the law by accepting a restaurant gift card or a similar kind of gift, Justice Neil Gorsuch said. ‘How does anyone in the real world know the line,’ Gorsuch asked Colleen Sinzdak, an assistant US solicitor general arguing for the government, in an exchange that was at times tense. Sinzdak suggested the government wouldn’t typically prosecute those kinds of ‘fringe’ cases. But Chief Justice John Roberts noted that in recent cases the court has been skeptical of prosecutors’ trust us arguments. ‘We’ve had several cases where we’ve made the very clear point that we don’t rely on the good faith of the prosecutors in deciding cases like this,’ Roberts said,” and “I think the – quote, ‘fringe cases’ – are the everyday concern,” Justice Kavanaugh added.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett (who had served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit whose ruling is being appealed here) told Sinzdak: “I’m increasingly worried about the government’s position.” “In the Indiana case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested a narrower reading of the statute that would still allow the government to prosecute some gratuities, but not all. Sinzdak said the government could live with that more narrow interpretation. But ‘I do not think it is correct,’ she said.” “Congress was not doing something wild and crazy,” Sinzdak explained.

“The federalism and due process implications of the government’s view are gobsmacking,” contended Snyder’s attorney Lisa Blatt, chair of the Supreme Court and appellate practice at Williams & Connolly. “All states prohibit bribery but localities and states take infinite approaches to gifts and outside compensation. Affirmance would let federal prosecutors second-guess all of these judgments. Meanwhile, state and local officials will have no way of knowing what gift would subject them to 10 years in prison,” she lamented, reminding the justices that “extensive guidance tells federal employees that accepting anything over $20 is a crime. It would be downright Kafkaesque to subject state and local officials to a standardless and severe regime where federal interests are at their weakest,” Blatt added. “Congress did not plausibly subject all of these people to 10 years in prison just for accepting gifts.”

Under questioning by Justice Kagan, the government’s Sinzdak “also pointed out there are a number of ‘safe harbors’ in the statute that carve out other legal behavior, including limiting it to gifts worth $5,000 or more that are connected to some official government act or business transaction, and making express exceptions for ‘bona fide salary’ payments and charitable contributions,” the Chicago Tribune reports. She also argued that “illegal gratuities [should be] included in a bribery statute that requires a quid pro quo because in the end they do ‘the same harm’ whether an agreement was struck in advance or not. ‘If there is a beforehand agreement, in (Snyder’s) case it doesn’t change anything, because it’s crystal clear that what he was doing, taking a public act intending to get that private reward … he’s doing the public act in order to line his own pockets,’ Sinzdak said. As for ‘an apple-for-the-teacher’ type gifts, Sinzdak said such hypotheticals have no real-world purpose because prosecutors would never bring charges in such cases. ‘They’re just not even on the radar of the government,’ she said.”

The Tribune and other Chicago news outlets have been closely following the Snyder case not because of its proximity to the Windy City, but because of its implications for the corruption case of the decade in Illinois, a wide-ranging graft case involving the former speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives and his cronies. Sentencing was postponed after trial because the judge agreed that the ultimate SCOTUS ruling in the Snyder case could potentially derail those high-profile convictions.

“The plain meaning of ‘reward’ readily covers a payment given in return for an official action or decision that is already complete. So a police chief who sends his officers to foil a burglary at a store and then demands the store owner pay him $10,000 for his officers’ work, he acts with the intent to be rewarded,” Sinzdak outlined for the Court. “And a mayor, who steers a contract for a particular business and then asks that business to pay him $13,000 for the contract, acts with the intent to be rewarded – whether or not the contractor agreed to give him the reward before the contract closed,” she explains.

The Tribune tells its readers that “Federal prosecutors have said the plain language of the statute leaves no question that doling out rewards to a politician for an official act is a type of ‘pernicious graft’ that Congress clearly wanted to outlaw. ‘As lawmakers have recognized for centuries, corrupt gratuities give rise to deceitful behavior by their recipients, who may carry out their duties in a way designed to maximize the rewards to themselves instead of to the local government or other federally funded entity they serve,’ attorneys for the government wrote in their response brief last month.” The federal government further dismisses the concept that the gratuities law could be interpreted to criminalize “innocuous tokens of gratitude.” The federal response brief reminds the Court that the law requires the

gratuity to be given “corruptly,” thus already effectively and appropriately limiting the law’s application.

Justices appeared to center upon the interpretation of the word “corruptly” in the statute. The “problem is the word ‘corruptly’ then creates enormous uncertainty and vagueness about where the line is drawn,” Justice Kavanaugh observed. “What is innocuous and what is not?” he asked. “And just as important, how is the official supposed to know ahead of time?”

“You don’t know if the concert tickets, the game tickets, the gift card to Starbucks, whatever, where is the line, and so there’s vagueness,” Justice Kavanaugh continued. “I think what we’re talking about here is wrongful in the sense that” it’s “evil, corrupt, immoral,” the government’s Sinzdak responded.

But Bloomberg Law’s Robinson reports that “Several justices balked at her response, saying it was too amorphous.” “Is it a sin?” Justice Gorsuch drilled down. “Are we now talking about something that, you know, would be a venal sin? Or does it have to be a mortal one?”

Look for the Supremes to rein in this law if only in definition (which, as you can tell from the foregoing, is effectively the heart of this statute). Will it have an impact in Indiana? We’ve already heard privately speculated that federal prosecutors may have been holding off on gaming related indictments resulting from a federal grand jury investigation in Indianapolis until they determined whether any such potential prosecutions may be affected by a SCOTUS paring back of the law.

The sentencing of former Rep. Sean Eberhart (R) should not be directly impacted by any ruling in Snyder. The matter reviewed by the high court, as we told you up front, involves 18 U.S.C. 666 (which makes it a crime for certain state or local officials to “corruptly” accept anything of value over $5,000). Eberhart pleaded guilty to Conspiracy to Commit Honest Services Fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. 371.

One specific issue we’ve heard raised: Whether a legislator presumably predisposed to help a gaming facility in that legislator’s district can be charged for accepting a gratuity in exchange for assistance in passing favorable legislation.

Stay tuned.