N.J. Politician Snared for Bribes Topples Conviction

     PHILADELPHIA (CN) – The 3rd Circuit vacated a former New Jersey state senator’s convictions on five counts of honest services mail fraud, but affirmed a conviction for extortion Tuesday.

     Joseph Coniglio was sentenced to 30 months in prison after a jury convicted him on five of eight mail fraud counts and the one extortion charge.
     The convictions stemmed from allegations that Coniglio entered into a corrupt consulting agreement with the Hackensack University Medical Center. Under the agreement, Coniglio allegedly took payments to make political decisions that favored the hospital.
     A three-judge appeals panel found, in a nonprecedential ruling Tuesday, that the charges against Joseph Coniglio were based both on a valid theory and an invalid theory of mail fraud. Since both theories were “inextricably intertwined” during the trial, the judges couldn’t say beyond a reasonable doubt that Coniglio would have been convicted of mail fraud based solely on the valid theory.
     The circuit found that the theory of mail fraud that concerned bribery, which related to the allegation that Coniglio agreed to be paid for political favors, was legitimate.
     The invalid theory, and the one that formed the basis of the circuit’s rejection of the mail fraud convictions, was the “concealed conflict” theory, which concerned the allegation that Coniglio concealed information about his relationship with the hospital.
     After Coniglio was sentenced, the 3rd Circuit stayed the former politician’s appeal pending the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Skilling v. United States.
     In that case, which was decided on June 24, 2010, the Supreme Court took issue with the so-called “honest services law,” which gives prosecutors authority to try cases against executives who deprive companies of their honest services.
     The high court ruled that the law was too broad and gave prosecutors too much range of conduct when trying a case. The concealed conflict theory of the law, which formed the bases for the charges against Coniglio, was unconstitutionally vague, according to the decision.
     “As a result of Skilling, the concealed conflict object and instructions from the District Court based thereon amounted to a ‘clear and obvious’ legal error,” U.S. Judge C. Darnell Jones II wrote for the appellate court.
     “Upon careful review of the record below, it is not possible for us to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that a rational jury would have convicted Coniglio based solely upon [the legitimate bribery theory],” wrote Jones, who sat on the three-judge panel by designation from Pennsylvania’s Eastern District Court.
     “At trial, the government inextricably intertwined evidence of bribery and concealment,” Jones continued. “The District Court itself specifically charged the jury that it might convict Coniglio on either the bribery object or the concealed conflict object, and the District Court s evidentiary rulings throughout the trial may have been affected by the existence of the concealed conflict object charges. Moreover, there is no escaping the fact that, while understandably emphasizing the bribery object to a greater degree, the United States did argue that the concealed conflict object alone was a sufficient basis for conviction.”
     The appellate judges also concluded that the extortion count had not been tainted by evidence admitted for the illegitimate concealed conflict theory.
     “We are satisfied that the District Court would indeed have properly admitted some very significant amount, if not all, of the government’s concealment evidence in a trial on only the extortion count,” Jones wrote.
     The circuit remanded the case to New Jersey District Court for resentencing on the extortion count.
     Coniglio has served roughly 16 months of his 30-month sentence, and it’s possible that a District Court judge could order his immediate release.

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