On Sept. 27, Long Island congressman Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Nassau County) announced he would be introducing legislation to make it harder for politicians found guilty of corruption and related crimes to have their convictions overturned.
The Daily News reported Suozzi unveiled his bill, the Close Official Acts Loophole (COAL) Act, which is co-sponsored by Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and now making it’s way through committee in the House of Representatives.
The reason this bill is needed stems from 2014, when former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was found guilty of corruption after he took $175,000 in money and gifts in exchange for using his position to help Jonnie R. Williams, CEO of a dietary supplement company called Star Scientific.
Last year, McDonnell appealed his case to the Supreme Court which threw out the conviction in an 8-0 decision. The high court had concluded despite the “distasteful” nature of McDonnell’s crimes, the definition of corruption is too broad. For the conviction to stick, it should be proven McDonnell made an “official act” to take his bribes.
An official act, the court says, is limited to someone formally using their office to take a very specific action. So while McDonnell did things like set up meetings for his friend, and letting his friend borrow the Governor’s Mansion for a party, none of those things should fall under the veil of corruption since he never, say, issued an executive order or directed state legislators to pass laws to help him do any of that.
New Yorkers have recently seen some corrupted politicians duck guilty verdicts. The first was in July and involved former speaker of the New York State Assembly, Democratic state assemblyman Sheldon Silver. He had been convicted in 2015 for hooking up his lawyer buddies with clients in exchange for an obscene $4 million in kickbacks.
Then, in September, former Republican senator and state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his son, Adam, saw their 2015 corruption charges tossed. Skelos the elder used his position to get his son jobs that netted him hundreds of thousands of dollars, including one he didn’t even have to show up for.
Even though the McDonnell case came a year after Silver and the Skeloses were convicted, their lawyers successfully used it to argue the same point to get their clients off: the jurors who found them guilty did so under the “erroneous” assumption any action taken by a politician is an official act, but the Supreme Court has determined corruption can only be tied to a specific action.
Enter Rep. Suozzi and his proposed COAL Act which would expand what constitutes an official action under the law:
“Suozzi said his bill would change the definition of official act to include any, ‘personal and substantial participation through, for example, approval, disapproval, recommendation, rendering of advice on, or investigation of, any question’ related to government functions.”
The proposal doesn’t spell the end of corruption. Even if the COAL Act is passed, the cases of the corrupt New York politicians won’t be affected. Plus, while the bill would make it hard for sleazy politicians to shake guilty verdicts, it doesn’t even touch campaign contributions, the legal way they get their money. The COAL Act would simply prevent any politician in the future from invoking the McDonnell case to shake corruption charges they get from abusing their power and enriching themselves in the process.
For the record, technically, there is a still a chance for some form of justice to catch up with Silver and the Skeloses in New York. The acting United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, Joon H. Kim, says he is working to retry both of the respective cases.
If he fails, then, yes, New Yorkers will see two high-profile politicians once convicted of breaking the law stay rich and walk away with nary a night spent in jail. But a new law on the books placed as an obstacle to prevent other from doing the same? For those fighting to get the money out of politics, it’s at least a little bit of good news.
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