CHICAGO (CN) – A federal judge has upheld the mail fraud convictions of a trio of corrupt Chicago officials, rejecting their argument that they should be absolved of wrongdoing after the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the scope of honest services fraud.
In Skilling v. United States, the high court limited the scope of the honest-services statute to cases involving bribes and kickbacks. Given the new precedent, Robert Sorich, Timothy McCarthy and Patrick Slattery argued that they should not have been found liable for fraud via depriving the city of their “honest services.”
They contend that in light of Skilling, jurors in their case were given defective instructions allowed them to convict the officials for alleged crimes that fell outside the narrow definition of the statute applied by the Supreme Court.
The three men were all ran afoul of the city of Chicago’s Shakman decree, a good-government measure meant to address decades of corruption accusations. In sum, the decree mandates that employment decisions for most city jobs must not be based on political considerations.
Although a system was installed to ensure compliance, hiring and promotions continued to be influenced by political factors, according to the judgment.
Some of the city employees who circumvented Shakman ran a scheme out of Chicago’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, a liaison between the mayor’s office and other governmental units.
In practice, the office was a center of political patronage and nepotism and penetrated various city departments to hand out jobs based on political work.
Decision-makers in the office included Sorich, the assistant director, McCarthy, his right-hand man, and Slattery, who, among other positions, was the director of staff services for the Department of Streets and Sanitation.
In July 2006, a jury convicted all three men of mail fraud, sentencing Sorich to 46 months’ imprisonment, McCarthy to 19, and Slattery to 27. After the Seventh Circuit affirmed their convictions, and the Supreme Court deniedcertiorari, the three recently filed for habeas corpus.
Their petition focused on the jury instructions given at trial, which told jurors that they could convict under two alternative theories of mail fraud: defrauding the city and its taxpayers of (1) money and property, and (2) the right to petitioners’ honest services as city officials.
U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow denied the petitions, finding that although the second theory presented to the jurors was erroneous, they could have easily returned a guilty verdict under only the first.
“In this case, the evidence was sufficient to establish fraud under a money or property theory,” Lefkow began. Later, she added that “because the jury necessarily had to find property loss to convict petitioners on either theory, the inclusion of the honest services instructions was harmless error.”
The opinion recounted the extensive evidence supporting the petitioners’ convictions, including witness testimony and Sorich’s maintenance of a database of over 5,400 entries of individual job applicants with accompanying political sponsors.
Lefkow also noted the government’s scathing closing arguments. “While petitioners were ‘invested with a public trust,’ the government contended that they ‘honored a different kind of trust’: ‘trust in a corrupt clout machine,'” Lefkow said.
“Even accepting that the jury concluded that the private gain involved was political advantage, this political advantage necessarily came at the expense of city jobs,” the court said.
Nonetheless, the three officials brought up various quotations to show that the honest services theme dominated the government’s arguments.
“This is just cherry-picking,” Lefkow rebutted, noting that the instructions were clear enough to render the case and convictions fair.
“The jury was not left wondering what property was at stake; the government made clear in both its opening and closing presentations that the property at issue was city jobs and the right to control how city money was spent,” Lefkow concluded.