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Judge Snared in Bribery Scheme Loses Appeal

CINCINNATI (CN) - The 6th Circuit refused to disturb the five-year sentence facing an Ohio judge who accepted bribes from a former Cuyahoga County auditor.

Steven Terry, a former Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas judge appointed by former Gov. Ted Strickland in 2007, sought the help of former auditor Frank Russo to win re-election. Unbeknownst to Terry, however, authorities were already investigating Russo for corruption.

After agreeing to help with Terry's campaign, Russo asked for several favors, such as advancing certain foreclosure cases against banks, and Terry complied, "even though he never reviewed the case files, never read the motions before denying them and never obtained a recommendation from the magistrate or anyone else (within the court system) about how to rule on the motions," the ruling states.

In exchange for the favors, Russo's political action committee donated $500 to Terry's campaign and purchased $700 worth of stationary, envelopes and car magnets.

After a five-day trial, jurors convicted Terry on three political corruption charges and sentenced him to 63 months in prison on each count, to run concurrently.

A three-judge appellate panel affirmed last week, rejecting Terry's claims that the indictment against him failed to identify a crime, that jurors were not apprised of the requirements for a bribe, and that there was insufficient evidence proving he had taken the bribe.

Writing for the panel, Judge Jeffrey Sutton explained that the indictment "outlined the contours of the relationship between Terry and Russo, detailed how Russo instructed Terry to deny the bank's motions for summary judgment, listed the benefits Terry received from Russo and mentioned each statute Terry allegedly violated."

Terry's claim that he received the money and items as campaign contributions, not bribes, also fails under United States v. Abbey, a 2009 decision of the 6th Circuit.

"If an official receives money 'through promises to improperly employ his public influence,' he has accepted a bribe," Sutton wrote. "A donor who gives money in the hope of unspecified future assistance does not agree to exchange payments for actions. No bribe thus occurs if the elected official later does something that benefits the donor. On the other hand, if a donor (like Russo) makes a contribution so that an elected official will 'do what I asked him to do' 2 Trial Tr. 290, and the official (like Terry) accepts the payment with the same understanding, the donor and the official have formed a corrupt bargain. That agreement marks the difference between a run-of-the-mine contribution and a bribe."

As for Terry's claim of insufficient evidence, Sutton said "a jury could find that Terry and Russo entered an agreement to fix cases."

"Start with the benefits, financial and otherwise, that Russo provided to Terry during the relevant time period," he added. "He gave Terry's campaign $500. He supplied Terry's campaign with approximately $700 in campaign materials. He expected his employees in the Auditor's office to engage in electioneering for Terry during office hours. And he hired a woman Terry had fired from his chambers staff to prevent Terry from suffering negative publicity.

"A flow of benefits from one person to a public official, to be sure, does not by itself establish bribery. The benefits instead must be part and parcel of an agreement by the beneficiary to perform public acts for the patron. That existed as well. On one side of the bargain, Russo thought that they had a deal. In return for showering Terry with benefits, Russo expected Terry to use his official powers whenever and however Russo requested."

Although Terry denied the existence of any agreement, evidence proves otherwise, according to the ruling.

"No subtle winks and nods were needed," Sutton wrote. "Russo straight up asked Terry to deny the bank's motions for summary judgment in the two cases, and with Terry's tape-recorded reply ('Got it.' Gov't Ex. 117), Terry agreed to do just that. And he did, within hours of the conversation. ... That is not an everyday occurrence in the judicial branch, and a jury could readily infer that Terry's unusual behavior, along with the other evidence, stemmed from an agreement to use his position as a public official to do Russo's bidding in return for Russo's financial, campaign and staff support." (Parentheses in original)

Russo received a 262-month prison sentence after pleading guilty to 21 counts of political corruption.

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