18 May 2016 The Crossroads of Business, Politics, and Crime
This Supreme Court term could do a lot to define what is criminal when it comes to how businesses interact with politicians. The High Court recently heard oral arguments on the now famous case dealing with the conviction of a former Virginia governor and rising political star sentenced to do time in prison.
Based on what happened at oral arguments, the former governor may have reason to hope. A big takeaway was the skeptical tone the justices took with the case. One of the justices, Justice Breyer, wondered whether the federal statutes penalizing political graft should focus more on what a business receives from politicians versus how a politician gains while in office.
Virginia Governor Sentenced for Corruption
This case goes back several years when a rising political star was indicted on charges of political corruption. According to reports and court documents, the governor in question came to office with thousands of dollars in credit card debt, and soon after being elected, began taking in meetings from a corporation seeking influence from the governor’s mansion.
According to what was reported at the time, a nutritional supplement company received special treatment from the governor in exchange for monetary benefits. Some of those purported benefits included money to family members, gifts, and other high ticket items. All this caused a U.S. Attorney to take action and indict the governor.
The case went to trial, and the governor was found guilty of corruption, but appealed the case. While he was sentenced to serve time in prison, that sentence is stayed pending the outcome of the Supreme Court’s decision. Many legal experts are predicting that the case and verdict may be overturned.
A Fine Line
The primary struggle the Court has with this case is where to draw the line dividing criminal activity from normal political dealings. Many might call them one in the same, but the truth is that much of our political system, as convoluted, complex, and difficult to understand that it can be, involves trading favors and influence to get desired results. Now the justices seem reticent to employ the criminal code to stop, prevent, or punish these kinds of activities.
This approach recently fell flat on its face when a state prosecutor tried to indict and convict a Texas governor for corruption. In that case a governor used his veto power to try and force a district attorney to resign after being arrested and convicted of DWI. While the governor was indicted, the case was soon overturned and dismissed on appeal before it went to trial. The takeaway lesson from that case is that the criminal justice system is simply too blunt a weapon to take on and punish many political activities.
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