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Wednesday, May 9, 2007 08:05 am

Overreach?

Aggressive prosecution of corruption dealt a couple of setbacks

Untitled Document Federal prosecutors have recently been handed a couple of big setbacks in their ceaseless pursuit of governmental corruption — but you would hardly know it, considering the lack of press coverage the cases have received here. The first case, USA v. Georgia Thompson, involved the allegedly corrupt selection of a travel agency to handle the state of Wisconsin’s travel business. Georgia Thompson (no relation to our former governor) was convicted of federal mail-fraud charges and of violating a federal law that provides penalties for anyone who “without authority knowingly converts [funds] to the use of any person other than the rightful owner” and who works for any entity that receives at least $5,000 in federal funding. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Thompson released on April 5 and then provided a follow-up opinion several days later. The opinion, which also applies to all Chicago-area cases involving U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, was scathing. The justices took a thorough look at the case and decided that Thompson had been railroaded by federal prosecutors. A couple of weeks later, lawyers for people convicted of participating in an allegedly illegal Chicago patronage-hiring scheme, including Mayor Richard M. Daley’s former patronage chief Robert Sorich, used the Thompson case in their own appeal to the 7th Circuit. That appeal could weigh heavily on future corruption investigations. Take a look at some of the quotes below, which are taken directly from the appellate court’s opinion, and you can easily see how a whole bunch of city and state officials who are either appealing their convictions or are now under investigation may be breathing a little easier. • “The idea that it is a federal crime for any official in state or local government to take account of political considerations when deciding how to spend public money is preposterous.”
• “An error — even a deliberate one, in which the employee winks at the rules in order to help out someone he believes deserving but barely over the eligibility threshold — is a civil rather than a criminal transgression.”
• “But these [previous court] decisions do not say that the Constitution forbids all politically motivated contracting practices.”
• “Treating an incorrect application of state procurement law as a ‘misuse of office’ and [an employee pay] raise as a ‘private gain’ would land us back in the soup — once again, simple violations of administrative rules would become crimes.”
Robert Sorich and his Chicago co-defendants argued that because they did not receive any “private gain” beyond their normal salaries when they violated a civil court order (the “Shakman decree,” which supposedly ended city patronage), they, like Thompson, shouldn’t have been convicted. It’s the same logic that officials of the administration of Gov. Rod Blagojevich were using in off-the-record conversations right up until Sorich was convicted. Former Gov. George Ryan’s lawyers used some of the same arguments in their appeal of his conviction. So should Blagojevich, Daley, Ryan, and a bunch of other people uncork the Champagne and get back to business as usual? Not yet. Elsewhere in the opinion, the appellate justices wrote that “this would be a hard case” if Thompson had “acted because of political contributions.”
Sorich and his cohorts were convicted of fraudulently evading the Shakman decree to build a massive political organization. Their city jobs weren’t incidentally political, as Thompson’s job was, but were at the very heart of Daley’s campaign organization. Also, some of Blagojevich’s people have been accused of doing governmental favors in exchange for campaign contributions. Another case that has received almost no attention was the recent dismissal of all charges against Nick Hurtgen. This was Fitzgerald’s first-ever loss after a long string of prosecutorial victories against governmental corruption. The Chicago-based district-court judge ruled that all charges should be dismissed because Fitzgerald did not show that Hurtgen knew that he was being used as a middleman in a hospital-construction kickback case involving the notoriously corrupt Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board. Fitzgerald had claimed that it was sufficient to allege that Hurtgen participated in the scheme — knowingly or unknowingly — and that it should be up to a jury to determine guilt or innocence. Nobody loves corruption — I certainly don’t — but I do think it’s a little strange that two big cases of prosecutorial overreach have received almost no media attention to date. That needs to change. 

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.
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