Oh, how the mighty have not fallen.
Sheldon Silver, the powerful former speaker of the New York State Assembly, survived his corruption prosecution in July. That’s when an appeals court overturned his bribery conviction.
The next to slip away was William J. Jefferson, a onetime Democratic congressman from Louisiana. The bulk of his conviction — which occurred after he was caught with $90,000 in his freezer — was tossed out in October.
Then, on Thursday prosecutors who specialize in graft suffered what amounted to a double disappointment: within hours of each other, two different juries declared that they were deadlocked in the high-profile corruption trials of Robert Menendez, a Democratic senator from New Jersey, and Norman Seabrook, the longtime leader of the corrections officers’ union in New York.
It would seem that the government is having trouble indicting public figures and making the charges stick. But however demoralizing this recent string of losses may have been for prosecutors and law enforcement agents, it cannot be solely blamed on them.
The law itself has also played a part.
In the last two decades, legal experts say, the United States Supreme Court has slowly eroded the country’s body of corruption laws, shifting the jurisprudential landscape in a manner that has raised the bar when it comes to prosecuting politicians accused of dabbling in dubious behavior. The experts say that conduct that was once clearly deemed to be illegal has now been redefined as politics as usual.
“For years, the court has been hacking away at the prosecutorial tools for combating bribery and corruption,” said Zephyr Teachout, a law professor at Fordham University in New York who has written extensively on the issue and who ran for governor in 2014. “Increasingly, the court has made it really hard to bring cases against anyone but the most inept criminals.”
The trend began in 1999 when a Supreme Court case called United States v. Sun Diamond Growers of California chipped away at the government’s ability to prosecute officials for taking what are known as gratuities — or minor gifts given to them by businesses or allies. The opinion found that gratuities were illegal only if the government could connect the gifts to specific favors by officials, establishing a visible quid pro quo.