The Supreme Court on Thursday overturned the conviction of Joseph Percoco, a former lawmaker for former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Part of a pair of unanimous decisions, the High Court opinions are part of a series of cases, making it harder for federal prosecutors to bring corruption cases to the public.
Former Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has sued Percoco and entrepreneur Louis Ciminelli in a series of lawsuits that have captivated New York tabloids under the “Albany on Trial” banner. His office brought down then-leaders of both branches of the Empire State legislature: now-disgraced Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Republican Senate Majority Leader Sheldon Silver. Dean Skelos.
Bharara then turned his attention to the executive mansion, suing Percoco, Governor Cuomo’s former top aide and family friend, for allegedly accepting illegal payments for the benefit of a Syracuse-area developer. Ciminelli was found guilty in connection with a bid-rigging scandal involving a project known as “Buffalo Billions”, a Cuomo-backed development.
All prosecutions ended in jury convictions, as well as lengthy appeals. Silver failed, but Skelos first found success following the Supreme Court’s decision in McDonnell v. United States, which narrowed the definition of what constituted an official act.
In the case, former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (right) was prosecuted for arranging a meeting with a donor who gave him more than $135,000 in gifts including a Rolex watch, loans and travel. A jury found him guilty on a quid pro quo basis, but the high court ruled that a meeting did not constitute an official act. Skelos used this precedent to secure a new trial, in which he was again convicted under the revised standard.
Now, the legacy of this series of anti-corruption lawsuits in New York faces another setback in the High Court.
In a ruling written by Judge Samuel Alito, the court noted that Percoco had no government position, but was running Cuomo’s campaign, at the time of the conduct in question.
“In this case, we are considering whether a private citizen with influence over government decision-making can be convicted of wire fraud on the theory that he or she deprived the public of their ‘intangible right to honest services'” , the first line of the opinion states.
Percoco’s attorneys argued that private citizens generally couldn’t do that, but the Supreme Court said the proposed rule “goes too far.”
“Rejecting this hard and fast rule, however, is not enough to sustain Percoco’s convictions on the wire fraud conspiracy counts,” Alito wrote.
The panel concluded that the jury had received improper instructions on how to resolve this issue.
In Ciminelli’s case, Judge Clarence Thomas – under fire for the money and gifts he received from Republican megadonor Harlan Crow – took aim at the “right to control” theory, finding that a person may be convicted of wire fraud for conspiring to deprive the victim of “potentially valuable economic information” necessary for “discretionary economic decisions”.
His opinion, however, found that “federal fraud laws only criminalize schemes to deprive people of traditional property interests.”
The Southern District of New York declined to comment.
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