13 July 2017

Corrupt politician freed on technicality

Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, Sheldon Silver's conviction for corruption in office has been overturned by a federal appeals court. Not so long ago, Silver arguably was the most powerful politician in New York State as speaker of the state assembly and leader of its Democratic majority. Like his Republican counterpart in the state senate, Dean Skelos, Silver exemplified pay-for-play politics in the Empire State until federal prosecutor Preet Bharara brought both men down. Today's decision doesn't reflect on Bharara's legacy from what I can tell, for the appeals court doesn't dispute that Silver did what he was accused of doing. Apparently, what you call whatever he was doing is the problem. The appeals court was guided by a unanimous ruling issued last year by our notoriously divided Supreme Court. That ruling overturned the conviction of a former governor of Virginia and in doing so narrowed the range of activities that count as "corruption" in criminal cases, excluding what the New York Times paraphrased as "routine political courtesies" like arranging meetings or securing contacts for "constituents" (i.e. donors) In the Silver case, the appeals court holds that the instructions to the jury should have reflected this new standard for corruption. Silver's conviction is held to be unfair since, despite the appeal judges' own doubts, a jury properly instructed may have seen wiggle room for an acquittal. Unsurprisingly, Bharara's successor as federal prosecutor vows to get Silver convicted again, but the highest court in the land may have made that result less likely. Just as opponents of limits on campaign donations argue that no corruption results from them unless you can read a politician's mind and prove that money changed it, so the courts now claim that there is no "official" corruption in most of the favors politicians may do for their most favored constituents. This is the sort of subject I'd like to see the President tweet about. As a mighty businessman, Donald Trump may well find the Silver ruling a just one. As the self-styled champion of ordinary Americans against a corrupt political class, might he think or at least tweet differently?  I wonder if we'll ever find out....

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