Just When Are Services Thought To Be Honest?
Let's suppose that police find some stranger snooping around your property, looking at your home's windows and checking at the doors.
Without an alternative explanation, the obvious conclusion would be that this stranger was about to break into your home. But would logical supposition be enough to charge the person with a crime that they have yet to commit?
Under our legal standards, it wouldn't. Sure, the guy might be charged with trespassing. If he had burglary tools, he could face more serious charges.
Kevin Geddings and his lawyers might not like that analogy to describe what happened to the former state lottery commissioner in 2006. But the federal honest services law that prosecutors used to convict Geddings has similarities to pursuing -burglary charges against someone for snooping around a home.
Geddings, a political consultant and one-time chief of staff to former South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, was released from prison last week after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down significant portions of the federal honest services fraud law.
That law says that the public enjoys a right to expect "honest services" from publicly elected and appointed government officials, meaning they shouldn't be double-dealing or having known, undisclosed conflicts of interest.
The nation's high court ruled that only if someone acts on that conflict, only if they take a bribe or a kickback, are they guilty of a crime. In other words, the person must actually break in to or try to break in to the home.
Geddings never acted on his conflict. He barely had the chance.
He resigned from the fledgling state lottery commission in 2005 following revelations that he had been on the payroll of Scientific Games, one of the two big lottery operators seeking a state contract to run the game here. The commission was the entity responsible for awarding the contract, but had yet to do so when Geddings resigned.
Federal prosecutors gained the conviction against Geddings because he failed to disclose the lottery firm payments on a state economic disclosure form.
Under state law at the time, failure to disclose the information wasn't a crime. It was grounds for removal from office.
The effect of the high court's decision won't stop with those who, like Geddings, were already sentenced using the honest services fraud law.
The ruling could also shape the ongoing federal corruption probe of the administration of former Gov. Mike Easley.
Last winter, Geddings former lawyer, Tommy Manning, told me, "I don't think that the Department of Justice is going to change its headlong use of the honest services fraud statute until they get stopped with a choke chain."
The choke chain has just been jerked.
That doesn't mean federal prosecutors don't have at their disposal adequate laws - fraud, bribery and even racketeering charges - to pursue public corruption cases.
Manning, like a majority of the nation's high court, would say that those laws are enough.
Avoiding those Latin phrases that lawyers love, there is legal principle that a crime require both intent and act.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association in Raleigh. Contact him at email@example.com.
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