Politicians accused of illegal influence peddling, bribe-taking and other crimes have been given fresh hope that a year-old US Supreme Court ruling will get them off the hook. Ever since the high court reversed a jury verdict against former Virginia Republican Gov Bob McDonnell, and in doing so tweaked the legal definition of a corrupt act, a growing list of politicians including Illinois Gov Rod Blagojevich, US Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey and others have used the ruling to try to win a new trial or force an end to their prosecutions. The results so far have been mixed. In New York, a court last month ordered a new trial for former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. The Democrat was so emboldened by the decision that he petitioned the Supreme Court to toss his case entirely without a retrial. In New Jersey, Menendez, also a Democrat, lost a bid Tuesday to get a judge to use the McDonnell ruling as reason to dismiss corruption charges before a trial set to start later this month. US District Judge William H Walls wrote that he needed to see evidence presented at trial before making a decision. The Supreme Court in June 2016 tightened rules on what constitutes an "official act" by a public official, saying that merely setting up meetings, calling other public officials or hosting an event do not necessarily qualify as an "official act" taken in return for money or services received. Some experts say the ruling has already discouraged prosecutors from pressing charges in public corruption cases.
Federal prosecutors in Oregon announced June 16 that they were closing a criminal investigation into allegations that former Oregon Gov John Kitzhaber and his girlfriend used their positions for their personal benefit. Kitzhaber is a Democrat. Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, a Republican, said in a statement that the McDonnell ruling had "set the bar so high that it is now nearly impossible to bring federal charges in political corruption cases." Professor Tung Yin of Lewis & Clark Law School said prosecutors would have had a harder time deciding whether to charge Kitzhaber before the McDonnell decision was issued. "The McDonnell case made it very easy to decide not to pursue charges," he said. The full impact of the ruling may become more apparent in the coming months, as more convicted lawmakers chase appeals. The former leader of New York's senate, Republican Dean Skelos, who was convicted of corruption around the same time as Silver, is hoping to also get a new trial. A three-judge appeals panel considering his case invited fresh arguments after the Silver decision was released. In Philadelphia, federal appeals judges are being asked by former US Rep Chaka Fattah to toss out his federal racketeering conviction and the accompanying 10-year prison sentence because of McDonnell. In Chicago, lawyers for Blagojevich, a Democrat who began serving a 14-year sentence in March 2012, are planning to appeal his case to the Supreme Court. Blagojevich had been convicted of trying to cash in on his power to appoint a new US senator for Illinois when Barack Obama became president.
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