The de Blasio campaign finance investigation ended with explanations from federal and state authorities of their decision not to pursue charges. The Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. chose to give the lengthier account: ten pages of conclusions of law and facts in a letter to the State Board of Elections, which had referred the matter for investigation. Yet again in recent legal history, the prosecutor declines to prosecute but does not stop there, adding his disapproval of the conduct he would not indict. He also suggests how the law could be improved so that it more directly, clearly prohibited the actions he does not approve of. The letter is something less than a model for productive prosecutorial encounters with the political process.
The District Attorney is passing on a case that involves a coordinated campaign of candidates, party leaders and party organizations to deliver support to targeted State Senate races. The question was whether party county committees became conduits for contributions to candidates that were larger in amount than what the candidates could accept directly. Donors were solicited for contributions to the parties, and the parties promptly provided the money to the campaigns for immediate use in paying their consultants. The coordinated campaign drew up plans for this arrangement with the county committees and submitted them to legal counsel for review. Counsel then approved of what the prosecutors refer to as an “end run” around the candidate contribution limits. The lawyer put his advice in writing and stayed in close contact with the client, providing “consistent advice” from planning to execution. The DA found no evidence of “bad faith” in the way the advice was sought or delivered.
A theme appearing in a number of post-McDonnell commentaries and editorials is that the Court has made more difficult the prosecution of bribery-based public corruption. It is certainly true that the Court has pared down the reading that could be given to bribery, and especially of the pay to play sort: paying for access alone, in the “typical form, such as arranging a meeting or phone call for someone to make a case for government action. As a practical matter, however, there remains considerable peril in access-buying. How much of a problem prosecutors will now face in bringing these cases is an open question.
In many corruption cases, some person’s (P’s) wish to have official A contact official B, to open up the channels of communication and advocacy, does not arise because B is somehow unavailable. B is or has been available, just not on the terms that the private party finds advantageous. B might rarely takes private meetings, requiring more formal submissions, or delegates much of the responsibility for face-to face encounters to staff. Or B has had the meeting with others present, and P would like a more private discussion. Or B has had the meeting, and P wants another, not confident that the first did the trick.
So P is looking for something he could not otherwise get, or so he believes, by having A ask B to provide the opportunity. Because B might not otherwise grant the audience, B is getting a message from A in many such cases—that A has a special interest in P, if not in P’s cause.
Depending on the facts, these circumstances, usually together with other facts, can constitute a trial question of exerted “pressure” from A on B, which the Court in McDonnell retained within its narrowed definition of “official act.” Neither P nor A are in the clear if P provided benefits to A in return for help with B.
A unanimous Supreme Court held Monday that it is not - certainly not under any and all circumstances - a crime for someone to pay for "access" to government decision-makers. Careful not to say so too explicitly, the court is signaling that political favor-seeking fueled by cash and gifts may well be repellent, but there is only so much the legal system can - or should - do about it.
Amid all the election-year talk about a "rigged" political system, the room left by this opinion for pay-to-play politics strikes a somewhat discordant note. Two years ago, in a case involving overall contribution limits, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that contributors can reasonably expect some measure of "ingratiation and access." Now, Roberts has taken another, aggressive step in that same direction, this time involving personal gifts rather than political contributions. He has brought the court along with the view that the bribery laws don't necessarily reach purely personal benefits provided to a government official in return for help arranging meetings or scheduling calls.
On two occasions, during the Supreme Court argument in the McDonnell case, the Deputy Solicitor General warned the court against narrowing prosecutable public corruption standards. It would send a "terrible message" to citizens. After the second time, Justice Breyer said he is “not in the business” of sending messages "in a case like this." He meant a case that raised fundamental separation of powers principles. To what extent would vague criminal standards empower prosecutors with their considerable authority to prescribe the boundaries of acceptable political conduct?
Chief Roberts went further and said that the Court’s experience with the argument that very day might prompt doubts that the Justices were wise in Skilling have let the honest services statute pass constitutional muster.
It was in that way an extraordinary argument, highlighting through dead-end hypotheticals and confusing exchanges the ambiguity of the law--an argument that defied the best efforts at clarification of everybody involved.
The Seventh Circuit decision in Blagojevitch is an intriguing example of judges trying to draw careful distinctions between what is criminal, and what might be acceptable, in the conduct of politicians. Their aim is to protect standard political “logrolling” from criminal prosecution. Among other counts on which he was convicted, the former Governor was charged with trading an appointment to a Senate seat for a position, for himself, in the Cabinet. The United States threw the book at him—Hobbs Act extortion, honest services fraud, and bribery with public funds-- but where the prosecutors saw perfidy, the Court found only the ways of politics. It specifically rejected the government’s emphasis on Blagojevich’s logrolling for his own benefit—this is how the prosecution would separate political logrolling from impermissible self-interestedness, but the Court was not convinced.
The opinion is short and does not bring to the surface all of its implications. One question it explicitly left open was what in this analysis remains of 18 U.S.C. §599, which prohibits a federal candidate from promising appointments "to any public or private position or employment" in return for "support in his candidacy.” This was not an issue in the case, but the Court left no doubt that it presents a First Amendment question for another day.
A broader and difficult question is what precisely separates acceptable political “logrolling” from impermissibly personal self-dealing. There is something curious or at least not fully explained in the Court’s analysis, which treats a deal made with campaign money differently from one closed with an offer of a public position. Blagojevich was convicted of trying to sell a Senate appointment for cash but found not guilty of trading it for a government job for himself. In each case he was acting for his own political advancement and proposing to pay with an official act, but the outcome depended on whether campaign cash was thrown into the suggested bargain.