The distinction between legal lobbying and criminal conduct may be subtle, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled Friday, but it spells the difference between honest politics and corruption.
In upholding the criminal conviction of a former member of Jack Abramoff's former lobbying team, the court sharpened the legal boundaries of giving politicians campaign contributions, dinners, travel and Washington Wizards tickets.
Honest-services fraud does not require public officials to explicitly agree to a quid pro quo arrangement to do an official act in exchange for "things of value," the court ruled. An implicit agreement with the public official is enough, and the official doesn't even have to accept the free meal, trip or tickets.
Attorneys for former prominent lobbyist Kevin Ring had argued, among other things, that a lobbyist giving "things of value" to public officials cannot be guilty of the crime without that explicit quid pro quo agreement.
Lobbying is like political contributions, Ring's attorneys argued, protected by the First Amendment. Making it criminal to have only an implicit agreement to exchange gifts for official acts can confuse juries and chill legitimate First Amendment rights.
Not so, the court ruled, because campaign contributions can be distinguished from other things of value. While soliciting campaign contributions may be practically unavoidable, "accepting free dinners is certainly not," the ruling states.
"Moreover, although providing information, commenting on proposed legislation and other lobbying activities implicate First Amendment speech and petition rights, the First Amendment interest in giving hockey tickets to public officials is, at least compared to the interest in contributing to political campaigns, de minimis," the ruling states.
In 2010, a jury found Ring guilty in a scheme to trade meals, trips and other things of value for favors from public officials. He was convicted on five of eight counts including conspiracy, paying an illegal gratuity and honest-services wire fraud. It was his second trial, and he was sentenced to 20 months in prison.
Click here for a 2008 story from Legal Times detailing Ring's dealings, including meals and tickets to the NBA's Washington Wizards, with former Justice Department official Robert Coughlin II, whom Ring met when they were both young staffers on Capitol Hill.