Before his downfall on unrelated theft-of-services charges, Michael Veon represented Beaver County for 22 years in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, eventually serving as minority whip.
In 2008, the Democrat was one of several state lawmakers and aides from both major political parties to be charged as part of the Bonusgate scandal. The grand jury found that nearly $4 million in taxpayer money had helped create software programs meant to give users an advantage in elections.
Veon is serving a prison sentence of six to 14 years in connection to those charges, but the appeal at hand concerns a subsequent trial.
In 2012, a jury convicted Veon on 10 more counts that included criminal conspiracy, conflict of interest and theft based on his use public funding to rent offices from friends around Pennsylvania through his nonprofit corporation, Beaver Initiative for Growth.
Facing up to two more years in prison, as well as a restitution bill to the commonwealth, Veon’s appeal reached the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in May.
A fractured vote of the court vacated this sentence last week, remanding for a new trial on the conflict-of-interest charge, and directing the trial court “to reconsider its entire sentencing plan.”
The Nov. 22 reversal stems from confusion in the Pennsylvania law that prohibits public officials from leveraging the authority of their offices for “private pecuniary benefit.”
Though the trial court allowed this to encompass “intangible political gain,” Justice David Wecht wrote for the majority that “the trial court’s understanding of what constitutes a ‘private pecuniary benefit’ is unduly broad.”
“The trial court’s jury instruction here made of the statute a meat axe, finding (or creating) a conflict of interest on every dais, at each parade, and at every ribbon-cutting, given that the very nature of seeking to satisfy one’s constituents and secure re-election all but requires the taking of official action to secure intangible political gains,” Wecht’s 36-page opinion states. “This criminalization of politics is a bridge too far.”
Of the five other judges who heard this case in May, only one joined Wecht’s opinion in full.
The other four all took issue with one point of Wecht’s conclusion: the first part that remands for a new trial on conflict of interest.
One of the judges joined only the part of the lead opinion that deals with restitution for the
Department of Community and Economic Development, or DCED, a state entity that provided most of the funding for Veon’s nonprofit, Beaver Initiative for Growth.
“There can be no serious doubt that DCED, the agency designated to receive the restitution ordered in this case, does not qualify as a direct victim,” Wecht wrote. “And neither, of course, is DCED a parent, guardian, child, or family member of a homicide victim. Although [state law] regarding ‘victims’ and ‘other government agenc[ies]’ reveals that the General Assembly intended that restitution reach certain commonwealth agencies in a manner that did not depend upon identifying such agencies as ‘victims,’ it nonetheless required first that the agency in question have provided compensation to a victim so defined. That is what necessitates our determination that DCED is not entitled to restitution in this case.”
Summing up on this point in the conclusion, Wecht noted that the ruling has “deemed illegal the imposition of any restitutionary sanction in favor of the commonwealth.”
“This leaves a comprehensive sentencing scheme unmoored from its foundation, such that we must afford the trial court the opportunity to revisit its entire sentencing approach and determine what modifications, if any, are warranted in light of our ruling,” the ruling concludes.
Two justices filed separate opinions, concurring and dissenting in part.
The court’s chief justice joined one of these opinions, with another justice joining that opinion only in part.