A federal judge on Thursday let stand charges of honest-services fraud against a key figure in the Abramoff lobbying scandal - marking a victory for Justice Department prosecutors in the first high-profile challenge to one of the government’s most widely used, yet recently narrowed, anti-corruption statutes.
U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle in Washington took what one expert called a “liberal reading” of a June Supreme Court ruling that redefined “honest-services fraud” and, in doing so, preserved the prosecution against Kevin Ring, a former associate of disgraced Washington superlobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Judge Huvelle denied a motion for acquittal in the case filed by Mr. Ring, whose efforts were closely watched in legal circles since seven of the 10 charges he faces related to honest-services fraud.
The Justice Department traditionally has used honest-services as a catchall in corruption cases, virtually anytime the public has been denied “the intangible rights of honest services.” But the Supreme Court scaled back the scope of the charge in June, saying it can be used only in cases involving bribery or kickbacks.
Though Mr. Ring is not charged with bribery, Judge Huvelle said a jury could “infer” bribery took place from the evidence presented in the case. As a result, she ruled, the prosecution is not at odds with the Supreme Court’s new limits on honest-services fraud.
“In deciding that bribery can be inferred from the evidence, this court has signaled that it will apply a liberal reading of the Supreme Court’s recent decision, which significantly scaled back the application of the honest-services fraud statute,” said Robert Mintz, a New Jersey white-collar defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor.
In arguing unsuccessfully that the charges should be dropped, Mr. Ring’s attorneys said their client was simply doing his job as a lobbyist - a job that includes giving gifts to politicians in an effort to influence them - and didn’t break any laws.
“This was never a bribery case,” Timothy P. O’Toole, one of Mr. Ring’s attorneys, argued in a Washington courtroom on Thursday. He called the honest-services fraud a “statute with no definition” and said for prosecutors, it “means anything that is sleazy.”
While Mr. Ring is the first notable defendant to seek to have his case dismissed in light of the high court’s ruling, experts have predicted of flurry of similar filings in other corruption cases.
“Until some of these trial court rulings make their way back up to the circuit courts, it is difficult to predict where the battle lines will finally be drawn,” Mr. Mintz said, “but we can certainly expect most defendants to take their shot at getting their honest-services fraud convictions overturned.”
With Judge Huvelle, a 1999 appointee of President Clinton, ruling against him, Mr. Ring is now scheduled to go on trial in the fall. He is accused of providing tickets, pricey meals and other gifts to members of Congress, their aides and other public officials in exchange for all manner of “official” favors.
Mr. Ring’s former associate, Abramoff, is serving the remainder of his four-year sentence on corruption charges on home detention while working at a Baltimore pizzeria. Nineteen people, nearly all of whom pleaded guilty, have been convicted as part of the scandal.
Unlike most of the others, Mr. Ring did not plead guilty and fought the charges against him. His first trial ended last year with a hung jury.