Political Corruption Laws: Absurd Theater
Goodman, Leonard, In These Times
A SAD DRAMA PLAYED OUT CHRISTmas week in Chicago when a federal judge rejected former Illinois Governor George Ryan's bid to overturn his conviction on corruption charges. The media reports have focused exclusively on the personal tragedy for the Ryan family - the governor's wife of 54 years and former high school sweetheart, Lura Lynn, has advanced terminal cancer. The Ryan family lashed out at the judge for lack of compassion (and later appealed to prison officials to allow Ryan a daytime release to visit her). But ignored was the larger story of Ryan's case, which has exposed the absurdity of the laws governing political corruption.
Ryan, a Republican, was convicted in 2006, three years after leaving office, of "honest services fraud." At his trial, the jury was instructed that it should convict Ryan if he deprived his constituents of the "intangible right of his honest services," a standard so vague as to allow the government to point to just about any malfeasance hi office as evidence of fraud.
The governor's challenge to his conviction was based on a recent Supreme Court case, Shilling v. United States, in which the Court agreed that the honest services fraud statute is incomprehensible to jurors. But instead of striking down the statute, the Supreme Court said that the government could continue to prosecute individuals for honest services fraud as long as there was evidence that the accused received a "bribe or a kickback."
Ryan's lawyers argued that because the governor received no bribe or kickback, his conviction must be overturned. Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer disagreed. While the governor did not receive any bribe or kickback in the ordinary sense of those words, Pallmeyer reviewed several decades of federal law and found that the words "bribe" and "kickback" have been given an expansive definition by the federal courts. Under federal law, a politician receives a bribe or a kickback if he receives "a stream of benefits in implicit exchange for one or more official acts" from a political supporter.
Applying this standard, Pallmeyer reviewed the evidence offered against Ryan during his five-month trial, most of which involved Ryan helping two of his key political backers obtain lucrative state contracts and leases. …