There is a rot spreading through the nation’s criminal justice system, and federal investigators and prosecutors in Arizona are showing symptoms of the disease. Prosecutors nationwide are bringing extraordinarily aggressive cases against Americans engaged in the political process, and federal prosecutors in Phoenix have recently concluded — and lost, due to a hung jury followed by a dismissal — a trial in which they accused four American citizens of a conspiracy to bribe a member of the Arizona Corporation Commission.
When judges and neutral jurors review the criminal charges presented by prosecutors in political cases across this country, they very often give prosecutors a failing grade. Consider the following examples:
After former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens was prosecuted on corruption charges, an independent investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice found the case was “permeated by the [government’s] systematic concealment of significant exculpatory evidence.”
The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously vacated the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell on public corruption charges because “merely arranging a meeting or hosting an event to discuss a matter” is not a crime.
The U.S. Department of Justice dismissed corruption charges against New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez in shame, after failing to persuade a jury of the senator’s guilt.
The court dismissed an indictment against former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The indictment alleged that, by demanding revisions to pending legislation, Governor Perry committed a crime.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff was convicted on charges of lying to federal investigators about his conversations with reporters — but those charges have since been discredited and the reporter in question has recanted her testimony after reviewing her notes.
A jury last year acquitted the former Utah attorney general of public corruption allegations grounded in routine fundraising activities before he took office.
Compare these outcomes to non-political cases. When charges are not based on political activities, the government has an almost insurmountable advantage and conviction rates exceed 90 percent. Political prosecutions are the outlier, suggesting that something is amiss.
But Arizona’s recent case may set a new low. Federal prosecutors skipped the investigation before flinging accusations; a stream of critical witnesses took the stand and denied being interviewed before the charges were filed. Prosecutors, who based their entire case on the testimony of a jilted lover, insisted that a modest monthly salary of $3,500 paid to a politician’s wife constituted a bribe — but the recipient of the funds had significant experience in her field of work, performed substantial services for the money, and similar jobs in the industry were compensated at similar levels. The funds weren’t paid as cash in a brown paper bag; they were paid by check and reported to the IRS.
That’s not a bribe — that’s a job.
The embarrassing end to the government’s case in Arizona was not particularly surprising — immediately after reading the indictment, we publicly warned against assuming the government could prove the allegations — but even with the dismissal, the message from federal law enforcement to politically active Arizonans is clear – with or without sufficient evidence, we’re coming for you.
— Kory Langhofer and Thomas Basile practice political and constitutional law in Phoenix. Langhofer is a former federal prosecutor.
The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.