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Unions want U.S. Supreme Court to curtail federal bribery statute


National labor unions have taken up the cause of a former Indiana mayor convicted twice of taking a $13,000 bribe after steering city contracts to a local company.

At issue is whether a section of the federal bribery statute criminalizes gratuities – payments in recognition of actions a state or local official has already taken or committed to take, without any quid pro quo agreement to take such actions.

The U.S. Supreme Court has taken up the case of former Portage, Indiana, mayor James Snyder this session and its decision could have significant implications for public officials across the country along with prosecutors, unions, criminal defense attorneys and taxpayers.

Snyder took office in 2012 at a time when he was strapped for cash. His business, First Financial Trust Mortgage, owed nearly $100,000 in payroll taxes as of 2009. And he was behind on his personal taxes. The IRS had taken money from his personal bank accounts in both 2010 and 2011.

Prosecutors contended that when it came time for the city to buy garbage trucks, Snyder rigged the bidding process to make sure the contracts went to Great Lakes Peterbilt, a trucking company owned by brothers Robert and Steve Buha. Great Lakes Peterbilt got two contracts with a total value of $1.125 million. Three weeks after the second contract, Great Lakes Peterbilt sent a $13,000 check to a defunct company that Snyder owned. Snyder then moved most of the money to his personal account. When the FBI asked about the $13,000, Snyder said it was for consulting services he provided to Great Lakes Peterbilt. Snyder was eventually convicted of bribery twice in two trials.

Unions argue that a quid pro quo – or this for that – agreement is essential. Prosecutors and the U.S. Attorney’s office argue that lawmakers were purposeful when they last revised the statute in 1986 and noted that “gratuities have long been viewed as a species of corrupt payment.”

Appeals courts have split on the issue, which has brought the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Unions such as the Laborers’ International Union of North America and International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 AFL-CIO have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of Snyder.

The Laborers’ International Union of North America said in its brief that the statute is so broad that it threatens to “chill legitimate political activity” such as campaign contributions and other interactions with elected officials.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers also has filed a brief in the case.

“This case presents a criminal statute that has been stretched beyond its limits,” the group wrote. “The government reads section 666 to criminalize not only quid pro quo bribes, but also the payment of any after-the-fact gratuity, if that payment was made in recognition of actions already taken – even if the official did not agree to act in exchange for the payment. That reading is wrong as a textual and structural matter. And it has serious and far-reaching consequences for state and local government employees and their constituents.”

The Supreme Court has set oral arguments in the case for April 15. A decision is expected by June.