Supreme Court urged to review lobbyist’s conviction

A free-market group is encouraging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the appeal of a former associate of Jack Abramoff, arguing his conviction wrongly considered campaign contributions as evidence of bribery.

The Center for Competitive Politics (CCR), which advocates for First Amendment campaign finance rights, filed a friend of the court brief for a petition asking the court to review the 20-month sentence of Kevin Ring.

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Ring was found guilty of various fraud, bribery and conspiracy charges in 2011 — a conviction he appealed and lost earlier this year. Among the evidence presented by prosecutors in the case was Ring’s campaign contributions.

Last month, Ring's attorney, Timothy O'Toole, sent petition documents to the U.S. Supreme Court, urging it to hear his case. The lawyer told The Hill the government has an August deadline to file an opposition.

In its amicus brief to the high court, the center said that, by upholding a standard of using a person’s campaign donations to infer bribery, the ruling threatened to have a “chilling effect” on free speech rights.

“Lobbyists and other citizens who may hope to influence public policy through campaign contributions will be reluctant to exercise that First Amendment right for fear that their lawful conduct may later be used as evidence that they intended to influence public officials unlawfully,” wrote Allen Dickerson, the nonprofit’s legal director, and the organization’s counsel, John D. Cline.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and The Rutherford Institute also filed a joint brief in support this week.

Ring argued when appealing his conviction that the court should not have considered his legal campaign contributions as evidence he had corrupted public officials. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals — the second highest court in the land — rejected the appeal earlier this year, leaving the Supreme Court as Ring’s last resort. 

The Supreme Court says it receives more than 7,000 petitions for cases each year and picks less than 150.

While some bribery charges must prove a link between a gift and reward — a quid pro quo — the appeals court cited a previous ruling that defined the “illegal gratuity” charge as one where the gift “may constitute merely a reward for some future act that the public official will take ... or for a past act that he has already taken.”

The center said considering campaign donations in that way “amounts to a ‘meat-axe’ where a scalpel is needed.”

Dan Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law, says there are some inconsistencies in the language of previous federal statues.

"This is a hard area to begin with. It's hard to draw clear lines in this area, but I think the Supreme Court could be clearer for what the standard for bribery and extortion should be," he said, adding that, with many cases nationwide caught on the ambiguity of a bribery definition, it would be a worthy case for the court to consider.

For example, must there be an "explicit agreement" that making a campaign donation will result in a favor, or vice versa, or "can winks and nods be enough?" he asks.

The center is pushing for the court to spell out more clearly where that line is and what can count as evidence.