Supreme Court leans toward limiting corruption trials in New York cases

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday questioned whether a former aide to former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was legally convicted of a bribery charge as it considered two cases that could place new limits on federal prosecutors in public corruption cases.

The first case centered on whether Joseph Percoco’s conduct in receiving a $35,000 payment from a real estate developer to manage Cuomo’s 2014 re-election campaign is covered by a federal law that requires “honest services” be provided to the public. Percoco says that because he was not working for the government at the time, he did not have a duty to provide honest services.

The second case involves Louis Ciminelli, a Buffalo-based real estate developer, who was convicted of wire fraud for trying to rig the bidding process for redevelopment contracts in the city. His lawyers argue that his conduct in ensuring that his company was a preferred bidder, which involved trying to influence the selection criteria set by the State for the benefit of his company, did not reach the level of fraud.

The judges were sympathetic to the defendants during both oral arguments. In the case of Percoco, Most of the nine justices seemed concerned that allowing non-government employees to be criminally charged would attract other influential figures in the corridors of power, such as lobbyists. Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch commented that Washington is “full of such people.”

Liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson also pressed government attorney Nicole Reaves on the question of how to draw the line between legal and illegal influence on the government.

“How do you tell that person from a lobbyist?” she asked.

On the other hand, liberal Justice Elena Kagan also seemed concerned that adopting Percoco’s argument would allow government officials to game the system by resigning from office and then receiving payments that would otherwise be seen as bribes before resuming their business. government functions.

Prosecutors say Percoco was only temporarily working for Cuomo’s campaign when he received payment from developer Steven Aiello, who was seeking state funding for a construction project. Percoco worked as Cuomo’s top aide from 2011 to 2016, except for eight months when he ran the campaign.

Percoco was convicted in 2018 on one count of honest services fraud for real estate payments. At the same trial, he was also convicted of another count of honest services fraud and one count of soliciting a bribe to arrange for Competitive Power Venture, an energy company doing business with the state, to make payments to his wife. .

He was sentenced to six years in prison for the three crimes.

The New York-based US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the convictions in a September 2021 ruling.

Percoco’s lawyers argue that because prosecutors tried to conflate the two schemes at trial, their client should get a new trial on the second set of charges if Percoco wins in Supreme Court on his honest services claim.

The justices also seemed sympathetic to Ciminelli’s arguments, raising concerns about the Justice Department’s reliance on what some said might be an overly broad interpretation of fraud law.

Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh seemed particularly concerned that the government seemed to agree with Ciminelli’s lawyers that the appeals court’s broad interpretation of the law as to whether his conduct in the bidding process constituted fraud was incorrect, despite relying on the same theory in other lawsuits over several decades.

“You just said that it’s easier to convict people under this incorrect articulation of theory than under the correct articulation of the law,” he told government attorney Eric Feigin. “I think you just said that. And that’s very troublesome.”

Several others named in the New York investigation, including Aiello, have their own appeals pending in the Supreme Court.

Cuomo, who resigned in 2021 after facing sexual harassment allegations, was not charged.

In recent years, the Supreme Court has already limited the reach of anti-bribery laws, most notably in a 2010 ruling in favor of Jeff Skilling, the former CEO of Enron Corp. More recently, the court in 2016 threw out Corruption convictions of former Republican Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell.