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14th Amendment Doesn’t Apply in Bribery Scheme

(CN) - A New Mexico politician's extortion scheme did not violate the equal protection rights of a contractor that walked away from the shady deal, the 10th Circuit ruled.

Former New Mexico treasurer Robert Vigil was sentenced to more than three years in prison for trying to extort companies vying for a contract to oversee the state's securities lending program.

Aiming to keep Vigil in office, the mayor and his deputy, Ann Marie Gallegos, allegedly hatched a scheme to find work for the wife of Vigil's would-be opponent, Samantha Sais.

After receiving a bid from SECSYS, a company started by a former Treasury Department employee, Vigil insisted that the contractor would have to give Sais a job on her terms.

"The plaintiff, SECSYS, agreed to the plan in principle but ultimately found it couldn't close the deal with Ms. Sais - she wanted 40 percent of SECSYS's gross income from the state contract; SECSYS was only willing to give her 40 percent of the net," according to the Denver-based federal appeals court's summary. "When negotiations broke down, Mr. Vigil and Ms. Gallegos allegedly went with another contractor who agreed to pay Ms. Sais what she wanted."

"SECSYS sought damages from both Vigil and Gallegos, not for violation of any contract under state law but because the extortion scheme violated its Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection," the appellate panel added.

It affirmed dismissal of the case on Jan. 23, noting that the maneuver was a first in the 150 year history of the 14th Amendment.

"According to SECSYS, Mr. Vigil and Ms. Gallegos unlawfully discriminated against the company when they refused to give the state contract to bidders who refused to pay Ms. Sais's full demand," Judge Neil Gorsuch wrote for the court. "To be sure, SECSYS admits (as it must) that it was willing to meet the defendants' extortionate demand at least half way - after all, the company offered Ms. Sais most of what she sought. So that leaves SECSYS with the remarkable argument that it was discriminated against in violation of the federal Constitution not because it was unwilling to pay, but because it was willing to pay only some of an allegedly extortionate demand."

SECSYS argued that the New Mexico trial court had improperly applied a "class of one" doctrine to its equal-protection claims instead of a "traditional" class-based doctrine.

"However analyzed," the District Court properly rejected the claim, since there was no intent to discriminate, according to the 20-page opinion.

"With the elements of 'traditional' class-based equal protection analysis now in hand, it quickly becomes clear that SECSYS's claim gets hung up at the very first (intentional discrimination) hurdle," Gorsuch wrote. "To be sure, SECSYS attempts to argue otherwise, suggesting that the defendants' extortionate demand intentionally discriminated against the 'class' of individuals who weren't willing to pay up (at least in full). But the putative policy SECSYS complains of - the extortionate demand that anyone who wants a state contract must pay Ms. Sais her price - applied generally to all bidders. The policy wasn't like a rule saying African Americans or women may not bid for a state contract or that only those of a certain religious faith may. The defendants' rule applied equally to all, drawing no distinctions between groups of persons, thus implicating no presumption of intentional discrimination."

SECSYS's "class of one" claim failed to pass muster, the court found.

"The defendants' putative rule in this case (pay Ms. Sais everything she wants) applied to all bidders just the same," Gorsuch added. "Without any differential treatment embodied in the challenged rule, no presumption of intentional discrimination arises. Neither, for reasons already discussed above, does a classic extortion scheme like this involve facts that could possibly prove (whether directly or circumstantially) an intent to discriminate. Whatever the defendants' motives or further intentions may have been is beside the point; they lacked an intent to discriminate and that is enough to foreclose SECSYS's equal protection claim, whether analyzed through the prism of class-based or class of one doctrine."

Judges Michael Murphy and Wade Brobry wrote a paragraph concurring in the judgment.

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