RICHMOND, Val (CN) - Emails on a public computer between a Virginia state senator and his wife were fair game as evidence to convict him of bribery and extortion, the 4th Circuit ruled.
State Sen. Phillip Hamilton in 2006 used his position to secure public money for Old Dominion University to build a Center for Teacher Quality and Educational Leadership, in exchange for a salaried position with the school. A jury convicted him in 2011 of federal program bribery and extortion, and a judge sentenced him to 9½ years in prison.
Hamilton set up a meeting with Old Dominion officials in August 2006, U.S. Circuit Judge Diana Motz wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel.
"Immediately prior to the meeting, Hamilton and his wife exchanged emails discussing their financial difficulties, and hope that the new Center would employ Hamilton," according to the 11-page ruling." In their email exchange, Hamilton told his wife that he would 'shoot for' a salary of $6,000 per month. Those emails, like all subsequent emails at issue in this case, were sent to or from Hamilton's public school workplace computer, through his work email account.
"The Dean of the College of Education at Old Dominion, Dr. William Graves, testified that, after the initial meeting with Hamilton, Old Dominion President Roseann Runte directed the Dean to hire Hamilton, saying, '[t]hat man wants a job, make him director or something.' Hamilton emailed his wife that the meeting 'went well' and that he had 'reinforced' the idea that 'if and when an employment opportunity became available,' he would like to be compensated 'in the area of $6,000 per month.' Hamilton also emailed Dean Graves and, after advising the Dean to 'keep this under the radar,' explained how best to obtain state funding for the Center. In this email, Hamilton further stated that, if funding for the Center was not included in the Governor's budget, 'on my own, I will initiate legislation and/or a budget amendment to create such a center.'"
Hamilton, who was member of the Virginia House of Delegates from 1988 to 2009, engineered a deal in which Old Dominion got $1 million in public money for its new center and Hamilton scored a $40,000 per-year job as the center's director.
After his conviction and sentencing, he filed an appeal in which he claimed the emails between him and his wife were protected by marital communications privilege. He also appealed the length of his sentence.
The court denied both.
"(J)ust as spouses 'can conveniently communicate without' use of a stenographer, they can also 'conveniently communicate without' using a work email account on an office computer," Motz wrote, citing the U.S. Supreme Court case Wolfle v. United States, the only marital communications privilege case to reach the high court.
The 4th Circuit backed the district court ruling that Hamilton waived his right to marital communications privilege by using his work computer. It also affirmed his conviction and sentence.
As a Republican member of the Virginia House of Delegates, Hamilton was vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee, until he resigned in 2009. An Old Dominion audit found that Hamilton was paid for his director post, though he performed none of its duties.
Charles Lustig of Shuttleworth Ruloff Swain Haddad & Morecock argued Hamilton's case.
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