Supreme Court narrows federal bribery statute in Snyder case

(The Center Square) – The U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the federal bribery statute in a 6-3 decision Wednesday that could affect how prosecutors across the country pursue public corruption cases.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the opinion for the majority. The nation’s highest court had been asked to decide if the federal bribery statute makes it a crime for public officials to accept gratuities – payments or rewards made after an official act. The majority said no.

“State and local governments often regulate the gifts that state and local governments may accept,” Kavanaugh wrote. “[The federal law] does not supplement those state and local rules by subjecting 19 million state and local officials to up to 10 years in federal prison for accepting even commonplace gratuities. Rather, [the federal law] leaves it to state and local governments to regulate gratuities to state and local officials.”

That decision has the potential to upend several high-profile public corruption cases in Illinois, including the 2023 conviction of the ComEd 4 and the upcoming case against former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. Judges paused those cases while waiting for the Supreme Court’s decision.

“Although a gratuity or reward offered and accepted by a state or local official after the official act may be unethical or illegal under other federal, state, or local laws, the gratuity does not violate §666 [the federal bribery statute],” Kavanaugh wrote for the majority.

The majority said the timing matters here.

“A state or local official can violate §666 when he accepts an up-front payment for a future official act or agrees to a future reward for a future official act,” Kavanaugh wrote. “But a state or local official does not violate §666 if the official has taken the official act before any reward is agreed to, much less given. Although a gratuity offered and accepted after the official act may be unethical or illegal under other federal, state, or local laws, the gratuity does not violate §666.”

The case, Snyder v. U.S., centered on James Snyder, the former mayor of Portage, Indiana. Snyder took office in 2012 at a time when he was strapped for cash. His business, First Financial Trust Mortgage, owed nearly $100,000 in payroll taxes as of 2009. And he was behind on his personal taxes. The IRS had taken money from his personal bank accounts in both 2010 and 2011.

Prosecutors contended that when it came time for the city to buy garbage trucks, Snyder rigged the bidding process to ensure the contracts went to Great Lakes Peterbilt, a trucking company owned by brothers Robert and Steve Buha. Great Lakes Peterbilt got two contracts with a total value of $1.125 million. Three weeks after the second contract, Great Lakes Peterbilt sent a $13,000 check to a defunct company Snyder owned. Snyder then moved most of the money to his personal account. When the FBI asked about the $13,000, Snyder said it was for consulting services he provided to Great Lakes Peterbilt. Snyder was eventually convicted of bribery twice in two trials.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson disagreed with the majority in her dissent.

“Snyder’s absurd and atextual reading of the statute is one only today’s Court could love,” she wrote. “Ignoring the plain text of §666 – which, again, expressly targets officials who ‘corruptly’ solicit, accept, or agree to accept payments ‘intending to be influenced or rewarded’ – the Court concludes that the statute does not criminalize gratuities at all.”

She noted the widespread consequences of graft in government.

“Officials who use their public positions for private gain threaten the integrity of our most important institutions,” she wrote. “Greed makes governments – at every level – less responsive, less efficient, and less trustworthy from the perspective of the communities they serve.”

In May 2023, an Illinois jury convicted former state lawmaker and lobbyist Michael McClain, former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, former ComEd lobbyist John Hooker and former contract lobbyist Jay Doherty. The case involved a conspiracy to bribe former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan with $1.3 million in no-show jobs, contracts and payments to associates in exchange for support with legislation that would benefit the utility’s bottom line. Sentencing in that case has been on hold since the Supreme Court took up the Snyder case.

Another judge moved Madigan’s upcoming corruption trial to October while awaiting word from the high court.

Madigan served in the Illinois House from 1971 to 2021, as speaker from 1983 to 1995 and again from 1997 to 2021. That made him one of the state’s most powerful politicians, especially given his role as head of the Democratic party in the state. He faces 23 counts of racketeering, bribery, and official misconduct as part of a federal indictment. Madigan said he was just doing his job as a politician. He has pleaded not guilty.

Madigan was initially charged along with McClain in March 2022 with 22 counts of racketeering and bribery for his alleged improper dealings with the state’s largest utility, ComEd. Prosecutors further alleged that he used his political power to unlawfully steer business to his private law firm, Madigan & Getzendanner. In October 2022, prosecutors filed a superseding indictment that charged Madigan and McClain with conspiracy related to an alleged corruption scheme involving AT&T Illinois.

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