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Supreme Court accuses feds of 'vague and unfair trap' in ruling that could affect Madigan corruption case

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling Wednesday threatened to roil major public corruption cases in Chicago, with defense attorneys predicting one high-profile set of defendants could get a new trial — or even see their prosecutions dropped.

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a crucial federal bribery law aimed at state and local officials does not also criminalize after-the-fact rewards known as "gratuities." The ruling in the appeal of former Portage, Indiana Mayor James Snyder has long threatened to have a major impact on cases in Chicago, including the case against former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Now, defense attorneys for four Madigan allies convicted last year of a lengthy conspiracy to bribe Madigan to benefit ComEd also believe the high court's decision is very good news for their clients.

"I believe ComEd is going to trial again," said Gabrielle Sansonetti, attorney for onetime City Club President Jay Doherty.

Convicted in that case along with Doherty were Madigan confidant Michael McClain, ex-ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore and former ComEd lobbyist John Hooker.

Pramaggiore's attoney, Scott Lassar, said the Supreme Court ruling makes clear that "what Anne Pramaggiore was charged with is not a crime."

"I don't think the entire case would be dismissed," Lassar said. "But we will argue — I think successfully — that all of the convictions have to be reversed. And so, if that's the case, the government would have to make a choice about whether they want to retry the case."

Patrick Cotter, McClain's attorney, said he believes the ruling "does radically change what the U.S. attorney's office for the Northern District of Illinois can argue is a crime."

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment.

The Supreme Court accused prosecutors of trying to turn the law into "a vague and unfair trap for 19 million state and local officials." Justice Brett Kavanaugh authored the majority opinion in the 6-3 ruling. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson was joined in a dissent by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The dissenters called Snyder's reading of the law "absurd and atextual" and "one only today's Court could love."

The high court’s decision to take up the Snyder case interrupted the momentum federal prosecutors here had built through a series of corruption trials in 2023. Not only were the Madigan allies set to be sentenced in January for a nearly decade-long scheme to bribe the ex-speaker, but Madigan had been set to go to trial this spring.

Instead, Madigan’s trial is now set for October and could be delayed further. Sentencing hearings are also on hold for the Madigan allies. Their case has been re-assigned to U.S. District Judge Manish Shah following the death of U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber this month.

The corruption conviction of Snyder gave the Supreme Court the opportunity to study a law known as the “federal program bribery” statute. It applies to any state or local government agent who “corruptly solicits … anything of value … intending to be influenced or rewarded in connection with any business” worth $5,000 or more.

Madigan’s lawyers have noted that seven of the 23 counts he faces in his indictment are tied to the law in question.
It’s involved in five of the counts in the separate case dealing with the four Madigan allies.

The central question proposed to the court was whether, in addition to bribery, the law also criminalizes something called a “gratuity.” A gratuity is a reward given corruptly — but without a quid pro quo — for an official act that has usually already happened.

Snyder accepted $13,000 from a trucking company after he helped engineer contracts with his city in the company’s favor. A jury later convicted him of “corrupt solicitation.” Snyder’s attorneys say he did not approach the company for money “until after Portage awarded the contracts,” so there was no quid pro quo.

During oral arguments in April, the Supreme Court justices grilled a government lawyer about the definition of a key word in the statute: “corruptly.”

“What is innocuous and what is not?” Kavanaugh asked. “And, just as important, how is the official supposed to know ahead of time, ‘Oh, the $100 gift certificate is OK, but the larger one is not?”

Justice Neil Gorsuch at one point asked, “Is it a sin? Are we now talking about something that, you know, would be a venial sin? Or does it have to be a mortal one?”

Assistant Solicitor General Colleen Sinzdak repeatedly told the justices that “corruptly” refers to “consciousness of wrongdoing.” Gorsuch tried to clarify that a defendant must know that what he is doing is “unlawful,” but Sinzdak again stressed, “or wrongful.”

The majority opinion handed down Wednesday concluded, "The government asks this court to adopt an interpretation of [the statute] that would radically upend gratuities rules and turn [the statute] into a vague and unfair trap for 19 million state and local officials. We decline to do so. "

But the dissenting opinion countered, "Actual prior prosecutions under (the statute) were not the dragnet for public school teachers, soccer coaches, or trash collectors that the majority conjures. Rather, the real cases in which the Government has invoked this law involve exactly the type of palm greasing that the statute plainly covers and that one might reasonably expect Congress to care about when targeting graft in state, local, and tribal governments.

"After today, however, the ability of the Federal Government to prosecute such obviously wrongful conduct is left in doubt," the dissenters contended.

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