Joseph Ferriero Carmen Natale

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has upheld the conviction of former Bergen County Democratic Committee chairman Joseph Ferriero, who was sentenced to 35 months in jail on bribery and racketeering charges.

The appeals court rejected Ferriero’s claims that his First Amendment rights precluded the charges against him under New Jersey’s bribery law. The panel said the bribery law does not punish legitimate First Amendment activity, but punishes corrupt agreements to accept payment in exchange for official favors.

The court also rejected Ferriero’s assertion that the evidence supporting his bribery conviction was insufficient. Judges Thomas Hardiman and Anthony Scirica and U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas Judge Lee Rosenthal, who was sitting by designation, said the evidence showed he agreed to accept payments from a computer services company, C3 Holdings, in exchange for recommending the company to various towns. The court also concluded that sufficient evidence supported Ferriero’s fraud conviction, noting that he concealed his interest in the software company’s revenues when asked by town officials about his involvement in it.

Ferriero received a commission of 25 to 33 percent on contracts for towns that hired C3. He recommended C3 in towns with Democratic elected officials, including Dumont, Cliffside Park, Wood-Ridge, Saddle Brook and Teaneck, prosecutors said.

The appeals court also rejected Ferriero’s claims that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in McDonnell v. United States, which included clarification of the term “official act,” supported his statutory and constitutional arguments. But Scirica, writing for the panel, said the court found “nothing in that opinion that changes the outcome of this case.”

The court also rejected Ferriero’s claims about vagueness and matters of federalism based on McDonnell. The New Jersey bribery statute is not unconstitutionally vague, and does not involve the concerns about vagueness presented by the government’s position in McDonnell, Scirica wrote. On the subject of federalism, the appeals court said, “Though this case applies a federal statute to a nonfederal, local party official, it applies a standard from a New Jersey statute written by New Jersey legislators. It simply does not involve the federal government in setting standards of good government for local and state officials,” the court said.

Peter Goldberger of Ardmore, Pennsylvania, who represented Ferriero on appeal, said he and his client will consider seeking a panel re-hearing, an en banc hearing or a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court. He called the ruling “long and thoughtful” but he remained concerned that the federal government had interpreted New Jersey’s bribery statute. “It’s troublesome when the federal government steps in and tells states what to do. It’s troublesome for the federal government to tell the state what the standards should be in the administration of its own politics,” Goldberger said.

Ferriero was recently released from federal prison into a halfway house, said Goldberger.