A state appeals court reversed the conviction of former Los Angeles City Councilman Arthur K. Snyder for conspiracy and money laundering in connection with campaign violations.
The court agreed with Snyder's contention that his offense was an administrative violation, not a criminal act, and that he should have been subject to fines by the Fair Political Practices Commission, not prosecution by the district attorney's office.
The appeals court stated: "At the time Snyder made contributions . . . he was subject to administrative penalties but not to criminal prosecution. It follows that the judgment be reversed."
Officials of the district attorney's office and the political practices commission were not available for comment.
Robert Stern of the Center for Government Studies, a nonprofit think tank that studies political finance, disagreed with the appeals court's decision.
"I think it's an incorrect decision and hopefully it will be appealed to the California Supreme Court and they'll reverse it," said Stern, who testified for the district attorney's office during Snyder's sentencing hearing. "Money laundering is a very serious violation, and he was found guilty."
Snyder's attorney, Mark Geragos, said the case never should have been prosecuted by the district attorney's office.
"Now, five years and several million dollars later, we're at a place I told the D.A. we'd be at," Geragos said. "As a matter of law, there's been no crime committed."
For almost 30 years, Snyder was one of City Hall's most influential insiders and fund-raisers. He left the City Council in 1985, after representing the Eastside for 18 years. He then became a successful lobbyist.
His career was derailed when he was accused of illicitly funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to candidates through a network of associates and his downtown law firm.
Two years ago, Snyder pleaded guilty to eight misdemeanor counts of conspiracy and money laundering stemming from what investigators contended was the largest and most complex political corruption case ever brought in California. He was sentenced to six months in County Jail and three years' probation, pending his appeal.
Snyder admitted that he had conspired to violate the state Political Reform Act, and in eight instances made illegal campaign contributions in the name of others.
But as part of the plea agreement, Geragos said, Snyder was allowed to appeal.
The Snyder case was unusual because, typically, campaign money laundering cases in which special interest organizations recruit phony donors to disguise their large contributions have been penalized only with administrative fines by watchdog agencies such as the political practices commission and the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission.
"I think this stems from a district attorney's office run amok," Geragos said. "When they filed this case, [Dist. Atty. Gil] Garcetti was in a heated campaign and this was one way to say that he was tough on white-collar offenses."
The district attorney's office did not returns calls seeking comment.
Gary Huckaby, a spokesman for the Fair Political Practices Commission, declined to comment. He said the commission's attorney wants to read the decision before any statement is issued.
According to the decision by the court, Snyder contended "that, at the times relevant to his conviction, he was subject to administrative penalties but not criminal prosecution. We agree."
While Snyder is elated by the decision, Geragos said, the years of prosecution have taken a tremendous toll on him.
"Today's decision is the culmination of many years of havoc on his life," Geragos said. "When it started, he had a lucrative lobbying practice. That's all been destroyed. During the past few years he's been trying to hang on to his law practice. This whole thing has been financially devastating for him."