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Why it’s increasingly difficult to prosecute public corruption

You often hear about politicians facing public corruption charges in the news. Public corruption refers to any time of instance in which a government official abuses their position of power or public trust for personal gain. Bribery, fraud, misuse of government funds and failure to disclose a conflict of interest are common examples of this crime.

While the penalties for public corruption can be severe—up to seven years in prison and $25,000 in fines for a Class 2 felony conviction in Illinois—prosecutors have had increasing challenges in obtaining convictions for such crimes. The reason—at least in part—is due to a string of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that work to the benefit of such defendants:

  • 1999: United States v. Sun Diamond Growers of California – The Supreme Court issued a lenient ruling on government officials accepting gifts. The Court held that the prosecution must be able to demonstrate an explicit link between gifts received and favors rendered.
  • 2010: Skilling v. United States – This case addressed the crime of honest services fraud, i.e., politicians who work for their own personal interests at the expense of their constituents. The Court limited the scope of how this crime is defined.
  • 2016: McDonnell v. United States – In this case, the defendant in question set up meetings with influential connections for a wealthy businessman who had given him multiple loans and gifts. The Court ruled in favor of McDonnell, holding that it wanted to avoid any action that would dissuade healthy interaction between politicians and constituents.

As a result of the above rulings, behavior that was once clearly categorized as illegal now falls into an ethical gray area. This situation spells good news for individuals facing public corruption charges.

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Darryl A. Goldberg
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