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Court Ruling May Undo ‘Team Abramoff’ Guilty Pleas

Several former Capitol Hill aides caught in the influence-peddling scandal centered on ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff could see their guilty pleas undone after the Supreme Court narrowed the scope of a public corruption statute Thursday.The Supreme Court ruled that a federal statute known as the “honest services” law only applies in cases involving bribery or kickback schemes.Federal prosecutors had previously employed the statute — which makes it a crime to “deprive another of the intangible right of honest services” — in a broad range of public corruption and corporate fraud cases, in part because it provided more legal flexibility than the rigid requirements of charges such as bribery.In particular, prosecutors obtained numerous plea deals in connection with the Abramoff investigation in which individuals agreed to charges of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud.But the Supreme Court’s ruling may gut some of those agreements, because the individuals have pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to carry out a crime that no longer exists, several legal experts said.“They may get a ‘get out of jail free’ card if they wanted to,” said Loyola Law School of Los Angeles professor Laurie Levenson.Attorneys for two former Congressional aides who had accepted plea deals said Thursday they would review the Supreme Court’s decision.“I don’t think the judge will accept the plea to something [the court] determined is no longer a crime,” said Ed MacMahon, attorney for Mark Zachares, a former House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee aide who pleaded guilty in 2007 to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud.MacMahon said, however, that he and his client had not made a decision Thursday and would continue to consider all available options.“There’s no evidence Mr. Zachares ever took a kickback or a bribe,” MacMahon said.Drew Hutcheson, an attorney for Ann Copland, a former aide to Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) who pleaded guilty in 2009 to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, said he would also consider the new ruling.“I’ve been looking forward to seeing what the Supreme Court had to say on the subject of the vagueness of the honest services fraud statute, and I’ll look forward to reading their opinion,” Hutcheson said Thursday.Among those who have pleaded guilty to a variety of corruption charges, including honest services fraud, but have yet to be sentenced owing to their ongoing cooperation with Justice Department prosecutors are: John Albaugh, chief of staff to then-Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.); Todd Boulanger, a “Team Abramoff” lobbyist and former aide to then-Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.); James Hirni, a Team Abramoff lobbyist and former aide to then-Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.); Michael Scanlon, an aide to then-Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) who founded a public relations firm; and Tony Rudy, a Team Abramoff lobbyist and former DeLay aide.Defense attorney Stan Brand, a former House general counsel, said the ruling would also likely lead to appeals from individuals already convicted under the former law.

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