WASHINGTON — A Chicago case involving Mayor Richard M. Daley's former patronage chief may prompt the Supreme Court to take up a key question of public corruption law: Is it a federal crime to give public jobs to campaign workers?
Robert Sorich, the ex-patronage chief, is appealing his conviction three years ago for "honest services fraud" for having "doled out thousands of city civil service jobs based on political patronage and nepotism," said the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago last year.
In upholding the convictions, the judges agreed that Sorich and his two codefendants, Timothy McCarthy and Patrick Slattery, had not received bribes, kickbacks and other "personal gain" in exchange for the jobs. And neither Congress nor the Illinois Legislature had made it illegal to steer jobs to those with political connections.
But the appeals court said Sorich and his cohorts were guilty of a "massive scheme to defraud" the people of Chicago by running "an illegitimate shadow hiring scheme" out of City Hall.
Attorneys for Sorich and his two codefendants are asking the Supreme Court to take up their appeal and to throw out their convictions on the grounds that their hiring scheme did not amount to a federal crime.
The justices considered the appeal in a closed-door meeting Friday, and they may act on it as soon as Monday.
The case may draw the court's attention because of persistent complaints that the notion of "honest services fraud" is too broad and open-ended. In recent years, federal prosecutors have made this anti-fraud statute their favorite weapon in combating public corruption.
To win a conviction, they need not prove that a city or state official took a bribe or got something in exchange for a favor. And they need not show that taxpayers suffered an actual loss. To crack down on public corruption, Congress in 1988 expanded the anti-fraud law to protect the public's "intangible right" to honest government.
Northwestern University law professor Albert Alschuler said the high court should take up the Sorich case and clarify what constitutes a crime.
"This area of the law is a total mess. Nobody knows what 'honest services' means. It's extremely vague, and the courts are wildly split on how to define it," he said.
Sorich was an assistant director of Daley's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs from 1993 to 2005, and federal prosecutors said he used that post to "dispense" jobs to campaign workers and political allies of the mayor. They also said Chicago had agreed in two federal consent decrees, known as the Shakman decrees, to remove political patronage from its hiring and promotions. They said that Sorich and his codefendants were aware patronage hiring was no longer acceptable and that they shredded documents and erased computer data to cover it up, according to the indictment.
Alan Raphael, who teaches criminal law at Loyola University Chicago, said he expected the high court to turn down the appeal. "The court has a tendency to read federal laws broadly. And they reject 99% of appeals, and it's highly unlikely they will take this one," he said.
In December, U.S. Atty. Patrick J. Fitzgerald charged Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich with conspiring to defraud "the people of Illinois" with his "honest services." But in that case, the prosecutor alleged that the governor was seeking something, such as campaign contributions, in exchange for selecting a candidate to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat.