Word that the United States Supreme Court overturned a corruption conviction against former Va. Gov. Bob McDonnell spread quickly through the political establishment, which has been transfixed by aggressive federal prosecutors pursuing and prosecuting the supposed “criminalization of politics.”
A wave of similar investigations has ensnared many local figures, most notably former Congressman Chaka Fattah, who resigned shortly after his conviction last week on 22 counts of bribery and racketeering. Today, the McDonnell ruling has folks in Fattah’s camp clicking their heels. But others, like PA Sen. Larry Farnese, accused of comparatively small-time shenanigans, will likely be left in the lurch.
“The very short version of what the court did is that they said, when you’re looking at the ‘quo’ part of a federal case, it has to be some official act,” said local campaign lawyer Adam Bonin. “Part of what the court is concerned about here is that if you don't sort of narrowly define the things you can't do, you're giving power to prosecutors to criminalize innocent conduct.”
McDonnell had been accused by federal authorities of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal gifts in exchange for arranging meetings for a prominent businessman. The court determined that setting up “access” alone didn’t count as an official act.
This could mean something for the jail-bound Fattah and especially for his friend and co-conspirator, Herb Vederman. The successful businessman went down ahead of Fattah’s indictment for purportedly plying the congressman with gifts in exchange for his help in Vederman’s ultimately futile attempt to secure an ambassadorship. Now that whole section of the Fattah corruption case could be called into question.
“It wasn’t a decision Fattah could make or pressure the White House to make,” said Bonin. “In other words, ‘It wasn’t bribery for me to ask my friend Chaka to send out some recommendation letters.’ It’s going to get rid of the most serious charges against [Vederman]; there's no question about that.”
Sources close to Sen. Farnese also privately expressed excitement about the decision, but its relevancy for the senator is far less certain. He has been accused by the Department of Justice of spending $6,000 to send a politico’s daughter on a semester abroad in exchange for influencing a ward election that never happened.
McDonnell he is not. But legal authorities said that while the sums involved in that case are much lower, the ward vote itself – regardless of whether or not it actually happened – could constitute an “official act.” That depends on the ability of Farnese’s defense lawyers to successfully argue that a political party is a private club, whose internal elections have little bearing on the public interest.
Given political parties’ privileged involvement in public elections, that distinction has long been a legal grey area. While McDonnell’s case may have spared Vederman the (metaphorical) noose, Farnese is still on the gallows.