In a pair of unanimous decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court tossed bribery convictions of two individuals caught up in a probe of wrongdoing in Albany, including one that ensnared a former aide to ex-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), as Reuters reports.
The ruling will, according to experts, enhance existing limits on the power of federal prosecutors to pursue similar types of corruption charges.
According to NBC News, the high court overturned the conviction of Joseph Percoco, a former Cuomo staffer who ultimately left that post to manage the former governor's 2014 reelection campaign.
Percoco had been charged back in 2016 and convicted in 2018 for so-called “honest services” wire fraud for accepting a payment of $35,000 from a real estate development firm that was seeking to gain favor with Cuomo, doing so while heading up the aforementioned reelection bid.
Despite the fact that at the time he received the funds, Percoco was not a government employee, but rather a private citizen working on a reelection campaign, the jury in his case was told that a conviction was justifiable if it could be determined that the defendant “dominated and controlled” government business and had a “special relationship” with official authorities,” as the Daily Caller explains.
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said, “We conclude that this is not the proper test for determining whether a private person may be convicted of honest-services fraud, and we therefore reverse and remand for further proceedings.”
The court determined that Percoco's activities were not subject to the “honest-services” law, because he was not working for the government at the time, and therefore did not have the requisite duty to the public.
As Alito pointed out, the test articulated to the jury that emanated from the Second Circuit could have the unintended or undesirable consequence of yielding charges against “particularly well-connected and effective lobbyists.”
“From time immemorial, there have been éminence grises, individuals who lacked any formal government position but nevertheless exercised very strong influence over government decision,” Alito opined.
Even so, that would not rightly cause the standard to be extended to those not formally employed by the government, according to the high court.
Consistent with the ruling, Percoco's case will now return to the Second Circuit, where his conviction on two other similar counts may be fully overturned, as the Daily Caller notes.
The high court also unanimously tossed the conviction of former construction company executive Louis Ciminelli, who prosecutors accused of attempting to rig bidding processes for government redevelopment contracts, as NBC News notes.
In that case, the court decided against the applicability of the “right to control” legal theory suggesting that fraud is committed if someone deprives another of “potentially valuable economic information,” with the justices instead determining that fraud can only occur if a loss of money or property is shown.
These decisions represent the latest examples of the Supreme Court taking action to effectively narrow the scope of political bribery and corruption prosecutions, as Reuters noted, with the panel having previously overturned convictions in the New Jersey “Bridgegate” scandal as well as the conviction of former Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.