Unanswered Questions About Public Corruption Prosecutions After O’Brien

fick

by William Fick

Case Focus

On April 21, 2017, the First Circuit Court of Appeals denied the government’s petition for rehearing of United States v. Tavares, 844 F.3d 46 (1st Cir. 2016) (“O’Brien”), leaving in place the published opinion that ordered judgments of acquittal and brought the Massachusetts Probation Department “patronage” prosecution to a close. While the Court found that the government “overstepped its bounds in using federal criminal statutes to police the hiring practices” of state officials, id. at 49, the Court actually decided the case on narrow grounds and left unanswered a key looming question in public corruption investigations: can federal authorities prosecute allegedly dishonest but purely “political” quid pro quo exchanges, where there is no allegation of corrupt personal gain?

The O’Brien indictment alleged that state Probation Commissioner Jack O’Brien and two co-defendant officials ran “a rigged hiring system that catered to requests from state legislators and others to employ and promote candidates for employment” in the Probation Department. The indictment did not allege that the defendants, career public servants, put a penny in their pockets or did anything illegal for personal gain. Nor did the government claim that the defendants hired unqualified candidates. Yet prosecutors charged that the defendants committed federal crimes because, in considering and sometimes acting on recommendations from legislators, they violated a policy obligation to hire the “most qualified” candidates and did so with the intent to influence the legislature.

The government recognized that it could not prosecute the defendants for depriving the public of the “intangible right to honest services.” Several years earlier, in Skilling v. United States, 561 U.S. 358 (2010), the Supreme Court had limited “honest services” prosecutions to traditional bribery and kickback schemes and had warned against construing a criminal statute “in a manner that leaves its outer boundaries ambiguous and involves the federal government in setting standards of disclosure and good government for local and state officials,” id. at 402.

Instead, the government charged O’Brien and his co-defendants with conspiracy and racketeering based on predicate acts of mail fraud, bribery, and gratuity. The indictment alleged that rejection letters mailed to unsuccessful job candidates provided the jurisdictional “hook” for mail fraud. It further alleged bribery and gratuity in connection with the hiring of Representative Thomas Petrolati’s wife and employees recommended by Representative Robert DeLeo on behalf of other representatives at the time he was preparing to run for Speaker of the House and was allegedly seeking their votes. After a lengthy trial, the jury convicted the defendants on some of the mail fraud and gratuity charges.

In reversing the convictions and ordering judgments of acquittal, the First Circuit used broad language critical of the attempted reach of the prosecution: “This case involves state officials’ efforts to increase funding for their department through closed door arrangements with state legislators and other public officials. But not all unappealing conduct is criminal. As sovereigns, states have ‘the prerogative to regulate the permissible scope of interactions between state officials and their constituents.’” O’Brien, 844 F.3d at 54 (quoting McDonnell v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 2355, 2373 (2016)). The decision also reiterated Supreme Court warnings about federal meddling in state government. See id. But the court actually decided the case under much narrower, longstanding elemental principles.

With regard to the mail fraud counts, the court found that the rejection letters at issue were not mailed “in furtherance” of the alleged scheme to defraud, as the statute requires. See id. at 59-61. The government had argued that “rejection letters in a corrupt hiring system . . . help to maintain a facade of a merit-based system.” Id. at 59. But the court found that the government “presented no evidence that would allow the jury to infer that the rejection letters in this case served this duplicitous purpose.” Id.

With regard to the gratuity counts, the court held that the “evidence as to the gratuities predicates does not show adequate linkage between the thing of ‘substantial value’ conferred by O’Brien (the jobs) and an ‘official act’ performed or to be performed.” Id. at 55. The “government cannot show the requisite linkage merely by demonstrating that the gratuity was given ‘to build a reservoir of goodwill that might ultimately affect one or more of a multitude of unspecified acts, now and in the future.’” Id.

The O’Brien decision thus confirms the continuing vitality of basic elemental limits on mail fraud, bribery, and gratuity prosecutions. Not every incidental mailing in a fraud scheme can trigger federal prosecution under the mail fraud statute. Bribery and gratuity crimes require a clear connection between a specific “official act,” on the one hand, and a particular “thing of value” provided, on the other hand.

But the First Circuit’s decision did not directly address whether “personal gain” is required to sustain a public corruption case, nor did it establish any clear limits on federal criminal prosecution of political “horse-trading” among state and local officials. What would happen if the facts established the basic elements more clearly? Take, for example, an arrangement where “You vote for my funding bill and I vote for yours,” with a false denial of the deal contained in a mailing that more squarely is in furtherance of this arrangement? Untangling such questions will be left to future cases. The stakes are high because expansive federal investigations, as in O’Brien, can cast a chill over the State House, distracting and draining resources from legislators and their staffs for years.

William Fick, a founding partner of Fick & Marx LLP, was part of the trial team that defended Probation Commissioner Jack O’Brien.


The Supreme Judicial Court’s Decision in Beacon Residential v. R.P. Gives Survivors of Domestic Violence Their Day in Housing Court

devanthery

by Julia Devanthéry

Case Focus

The link between domestic abuse and housing instability is undeniable; survivors often face housing loss as a direct result of abuse or find themselves homeless after fleeing violence. In an all-too-common scenario, a survivor lives with her abuser, but is not on the lease because the abuser intentionally withholds housing stability as a method of abuse. In those cases, survivors may have to choose between their safety and their housing if they decide to separate from their abusers. Now, however, under the Supreme Judicial Court’s (“SJC”) recent decision in Beacon Residential v. R.P., survivors of domestic violence—including those who aren’t on the lease and are alleged to be “unauthorized occupants” by the landlord—are allowed to intervene as of right in summary process cases under Mass. R. Civ. P. 24 (a)(2) if they claim an interest relating to the apartment subject to the eviction proceedings. Beacon Residential Management, LP v. R.P., SJC-12265, slip op. (Sept. 14, 2017). As a result, thousands of survivors across the Commonwealth, formerly excluded from summary process cases, will have a right to their day in Housing Court.

In Beacon, the proposed intervener testified that she was a survivor of domestic violence who lived with her abuser, who was her husband, and their children in a federally subsidized apartment that was leased in the husband’s name. Although she lived at the apartment, she testified that her abusive partner prevented her from being added formally to the lease. The landlord’s witness testified that the landlord’s policy was to give an “add-on” application to all who inquired and that if the survivor in this case applied, she would have been added so long as she qualified and the husband approved.  However, the survivor was not given an application when she asked for one; rather, she was told only her husband could add her to the lease.  He, she testified, refused to do so as a means of controlling her. When the mother obtained a G.L c. 209A restraining order against her husband (which required him to leave the shared home and awarded custody of the two children to her), the landlord immediately initiated eviction proceedings against the family based on the mother’s “unauthorized” status at the unit.

The abuser failed to attend the summary process trial and was defaulted.  The mother attended the hearing and filed a motion under Mass. R. Civ. P. 24 to intervene both as of right and permissively along with a proposed answer and jury claim. She argued that she had a defense to the eviction under the Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”), which prohibits evictions of qualified applicants for public housing based on the applicant being a victim of domestic violence,  and G.L. c. 239, §2A, which prohibits retaliation against survivors who obtain restraining orders. The landlord opposed her intervention.  The Housing Court judge denied her motion to intervene based on a finding that she would not be able to prevail on her defenses at trial. The mother then filed a new motion to intervene on behalf of her children, which was also denied.

The SJC’s decision in favor of the mother makes clear that at the intervention stage, a trial court’s inquiry should be limited to whether the proposed intervener has stated a plausible claim to the property, and that the judge should not reach the merits of the underlying claim until the trial. Beacon, slip op. at 7-11. In this case, the Court held that the proposed intervener stated a plausible claim to the apartment under VAWA and G.L. c. 239, §2A, and therefore she should have been allowed to intervene on behalf of herself and the children. Id. at 11-17. While the Court stressed that intervention does not guarantee success on the merits, it unambiguously held that the standard should be broadly applied to allow intervention when a litigant claims an interest in the property at issue in the eviction case. Id. at 17. In the wake of this groundbreaking decision, a greater number of survivors will now have access to justice in the Housing Court, and an opportunity to fight to save their homes.

 

Julia Devanthéry is a Lecturer on Law at the WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School.     This article is an update of her recent article, Early Lease Termination Under G.L. c. 186, § 24: An Essential Escape Route for Tenants Who Are Facing Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, or Stalking,  61 Boston Bar Journal (Summer 2017).  In the case discussed here, Ms. Devanthéry filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Judicial Court in support of the survivor.