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6th Cir. Affirms Judge Steven Terry's Honest Services Conviction

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Jesse Unruh, the legendary former Speaker of the California General Assembly, said, "If you can't eat their[lobbyists'] food, drink their booze, ... take their money and then vote against them, you've got no business being [in politics]." Sixth Circuit Judge Jeffrey Sutton counters that federal anti-corruption statutes — one of which prohibits an official from accepting things of value "in return for" official acts — should be a politician's guide.

Since the courts get the final say on whether a politician goes to jail for corruption, maybe people should listen to Judge Sutton (if not Jesse Unruh).

Steven Perry, a former judge for an Ohio Court of Common Pleas, might have been better off heeding such advice.

Governor Ted Strickland appointed Terry to fill a vacancy on the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas in 2007. Soon after, Terry announced that he intended to seek reelection the following November. New to the political game, Terry sought the help of County Auditor Frank Russo, a presence in Cleveland politics.

Russo, who had already recommended Terry to Strickland for appointment, agreed to help.

Unbeknownst to Terry or Russo, the FBI had tapped Russo's phones while investigating Russo on corruption charges. The feds were listening when Russo promised a local attorney, Joe O'Malley, that he would convince Terry to deny a bank's motions for summary judgment in two foreclosure cases on Terry's docket. They were also listening when Russo told Terry to deny the motions for summary judgment (Terry agreed) before the men discussed Russo's attendance at future fundraisers for Terry's reelection campaign.

The scheme crumbled, and people were convicted.

For his part, Terry was convicted of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services fraud, and honest services fraud for accepting donations from Russo's political action committee. Terry appealed, arguing that the situation wasn't what it seemed. The Sixth Circuit affirmed his convictions.

Writing for the panel, Judge Sutton noted:

Not every campaign contribution, we recognize, is a bribe in sheep's clothing. Without anything more, a jury could not reasonably infer that a campaign contribution is a bribe solely because a public official accepts a contribution and later takes an action that benefits a donor. But when a public official acts as a donor's marionette -- by deciding a case to a donor's benefit immediately after the donor asks him to and without reading anything about the case -- a jury can reject legitimate explanations for a contribution and infer that it flowed from a bribery agreement.

Here, the jury could reasonably reject any legitimate explanation for Russo's contributions in the face of strong circumstantial evidence that Terry and Russo had a corrupt bargain. The same applied to Terry's conspiracy conviction. As a result, the Sixth Circuit upheld his convictions.

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