US Supreme Court narrows reach of federal corruption law

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington

By John Kruzel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court sided on Wednesday with a former mayor of an Indiana city who was convicted in a case in which he was accused of taking a bribe, in a ruling that could make it harder for federal prosecutors to bring corruption cases against state and local officials.

The justices ruled 6-3 to reverse a lower court's decision that had upheld the corruption conviction of former Portage mayor James Snyder for accepting $13,000 from a truck company that received more than $1 million in contracts during his time in office.

The court's conservative justices were in the majority in the ruling authored by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, while its liberal members dissented.

Federal prosecutors charged Snyder with corruptly soliciting a payment in connection with the government contracts, a crime that carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. A jury convicted him, and a judge sentenced him to one year and nine months in prison.

"The question in this case is whether (federal law) makes it a crime for state and local officials to accept gratuities - for example, gift cards, lunches, plaques, books, framed photos or the like - that may be given as a token of appreciation after the official act," Kavanaugh wrote. "The answer is no."

In 2013, while Snyder was mayor, Portage awarded two contracts to local truck company Great Lakes Peterbilt for the purchase of five trash trucks, totaling around $1.1 million.

The next year, while Snyder was still in office, Peterbilt paid him $13,000, which Snyder said was a consulting fee for his work with the company. Kavanaugh wrote that Portage, a city in northwest Indiana with some 38,000 residents, apparently allows local public officials to obtain outside employment.

The Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Snyder's argument that the federal crime at issue outlaws bribery but not gratuities. This led Snyder to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Kavanaugh wrote in Wednesday's ruling that the federal corruption law "leaves it to state and local governments to regulate gratuities to state and local officials."

Federal law, Kavanaugh wrote, "does not supplement those state and local rules by subjecting 19 million state and local officials to up to 10 years in federal prison for accepting even commonplace gratuities."

In a dissent written by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the court's liberal justices expressed concern over how the ruling could undermine efforts to combat public corruption.

The government has not used the statute as an dragnet against permissible conduct, but rather to prosecute serious cases that involve "exactly the type of palm greasing that the statute plainly covers and that one might reasonably expect Congress to care about when targeting graft in state, local and tribal governments," Jackson wrote.

"After today, however, the ability of the federal government to prosecute such obviously wrongful conduct is left in doubt," Jackson added.

Last year, the court overturned the bribery conviction of an ex-aide to Democratic former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in a ruling that also limited the ability of federal prosecutors to pursue corruption cases.

(Reporting by John Kruzel; Editing by Will Dunham)