No Abuse of Discretion
During the trial, the government repeatedly introduced evidence of Ring's lawful campaign contributions in order to create a complete picture of Ring's "interactions with public officials." For example, the opinion said, there was meaty evidence of a running joke whereby Ring would hold up a campaign check and ask, "Hello quid. Where's the pro quo?" The trial court admitted this and similar evidence to demonstrate Ring's modus operandi and to give the jury a more complete picture of the circumstances, but each time admonished the jury that the campaign contributions were lawful and not to be considered in reaching a verdict. In all likelihood, the jurors did not appreciate Ring's attempt at humor.
The appellate court rejected Ring's claim that this evidence infringed on First Amendment protections, citing to Supreme Court precedent allowing "the evidentiary use of speech to establish the elements of a crime or to prove motive or intent," as in Wisconsin v. Mitchell, 508 U.S. 476, 489 (1993). McCormick, according to the court, did not indicate that campaign contributions were an exception to this general rule.
Ring's Rule 403 claim had to jump over the high hurdle of "abuse of discretion review." Ring's campaign contributions were probative to show how Ring was able to influence public officials. There was testimony at trial that campaign contributions were viewed as "ante in a poker game." In other words, lobbyists are not in a position to offer bribes without the campaign contributions. The contributions show how Ring carried out his clients' political agendas. On the other hand, the contribution evidence could unduly prejudice Ring or confuse the jury. In assessing whether there was a quid pro quo, the court noted that the jury may have improperly considered evidence of Ring's jokes about contributions. Despite this impropriety, the court concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in allowing the testimony. In particular, the judge's repeated instruction to the jury that the contributions were not illegal reduced the prejudicial effect.
Power for Prosecutors
Ring gives federal prosecutors more power to secure convictions for honest-services bribery and illegal payment of gratuities. In particular, the court declined to require proof of an explicit quid pro quo (although it is not clear what such a requirement would entail), and adopted an expanded view of "official action," finding that an email forwarding a request can meet that requirement.
Businesses and their lobbyists should keep these principles in mind moving forward in this complex political sphere, because bribery prosecutions are nothing to joke about.
Hayes Hunt is a member of Cozen O'Connor in the firm's commercial litigation and criminal defense and government investigations practice groups. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jeffrey M. Monhait practices in the commercial litigation group at the firm. He graduated from Haverford College and Harvard Law School.
This article originally appeared in The Legal Intelligencer.