A federal appeals court has affirmed the conviction of an Ohio state judge on political corruption charges.
On February 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the June 2011 conviction of Steven Terry of the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court on three counts of honest services fraud. In October 2011, Judge Sara Lioi of the Northern District of Ohio sentenced Terry to 63 months of in prison and four years of supervised release.
Terry was appointed to the court in April 2007 to fill a vacancy.
Concerned about his first election coming up in November 2008, Terry turned to Cleveland political operative and county auditor Frank Russo.
In July 2007, Russo’s political action committee donated $500 to Terry’s re-election campaign and bought about $700 worth of stationery, envelopes and car magnets for the campaign. Russo’s official staff work also worked on Terry’s campaign during business hours.
Terry didn’t know the FBI was investigating Russo for corruption and had tapped Russo’s phones.
A July 2008 recording captured attorney Joe O’Malley’s request for Russo to convince Terry to deny a bank’s summary judgment motions in two foreclosure cases on Terry’s docket. Russo said he would make sure Terry did what he was "supposed to do."
In a telephone conversation two days later, Russo told Terry to deny the summary judgment motions, and Terry agreed. The two men also discussed Russo’s participation in upcoming fundraisers for Terry’s campaign.
Terry then told the magistrate judge handling the foreclosure cases to deny the motions, but she transferred the docket to Terry so he could do it himself.
Russo said that he expected Terry to give "special attention" to any of his requests and to "follow through for me." He was later convicted and sentenced to a 262-month prison sentence on 21 counts of political corruption.
Judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote the opinion in U.S. v. Terry, joined by judges Richard Allen Griffin and Helene White.
"Without reading the motions, without consulting the case files and without relying on the recommendation of anyone — within the court system — who had read the files, Terry did just what Russo asked. That is not an everyday occurrence in the judicial branch, and a jury could readily infer that Terry’s unusual behavior, along with the other evidence, stemmed from an agreement to use his position as a public official to do Russo’s bidding in return for Russo’s financial, campaign and staff support," Sutton wrote.
Sutton observed that the jury in this case could determine that the campaign donation was a bribe: [W]hen a public official acts as a donor’s marionette…a jury can reject legitimate explanations for a contribution and infer that it flowed from a bribery agreement."
Terry’s lawyer, Sylvester Summers Jr., a Cleveland solo practitioner, said he hasn’t spoken with Terry yet and isn’t sure whether he’ll request en banc review.
"This case is about one conversation my client had with Russo.…There’s no specific item that you’d normally characterize as a bribe," he said.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Ohio, which handled the government’s case, has no comment, said spokesman Mike Tobin. Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Ranke argued for the government.
Sheri Qualters is a reporter for The National Law Journal, a Legal affiliate based in New York.