The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday made it a whole lot easier for politicians to get away with corruption, oddly because the judges don't seem to understand how politicians are corrupted.
And that could make it easier for New York politicians, including those already convicted like Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, to get away with selling their offices for personal profit in the future.
The court, in a unanimous 8-0 ruling, overturned the conviction of former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell on bribery charges.
The governor had accepted more than $175,000 in loans and gifts from a Virginia businessman doing business with the state. Among the gifts were a Rolex watch, vacations and partial payments of a daughter’s wedding reception.
The influence and access that the businessman gained though these lavish gifts constituted proof that the governor was on the take, prosecutors said.
But not according to the Supreme Court, which ruled that it's not enough to buy access to a public official and his ability to connect you with the right people, hold the right meetings and influence others by the mere connection to the office. The politician actually has to take tangible action in response to the bribe.
So did the governor think that this businessman was helping pay for his daughter's wedding reception because he's a really nice guy? Because he has a soft spot for weddings? (Does anyone besides us see a Godfather connection here?)
When this businessman purchased that Rolex and presented it to the governor, was he only doing it out of concern that the governor be able to access the correct time of day?
Just because the governor didn't go out the next day and hand this guy's company a state contract or introduce a bill on his behalf doesn't mean there wasn't influence being anticipated and exerted in the businessman’s favor.
People in power are influenced by the connection to other people in power. If you're a legislator and you get handed a proposal favoring a business that’s owned by a guy who attends the governor's daughter's wedding, are you going to pretend that relationship doesn't exist when considering whether to support the legislation?
The most effective dirty politics isn't done out in the open with a sledgehammer. It's often done in secret, over time, with a nod and a wink.
So now, prosecutors have to wait for an overt act to make a case against politicians who clearly are accepting money in exchange for their influence. Skelos and Silver must be dancing a jig right now in anticipation of their convictions being reversed.
This decision raises the bar for prosecutors on what they need to be able to prove to get a conviction on bribery and corruption.
It makes it easier for corrupt politicians to use their influence in exchange for money and favors.
And it reinforces the need for New York's government officials to pass comprehensive ethics legislation that removes loopholes and lessens the discretion judges must use to interpret what constitutes unethical conduct and what doesn't.
Unfortunately, in empowering unethical politicians, the Supreme Court also removed any incentive New York politicians had to act.