TALLAHASSEE — A U.S. Supreme Court decision this week limiting a key tactic federal prosecutors use to fight public corruption drew notice here in Florida amid several investigations tied to political figures.
The decision likely won't affect a string of recent corruption convictions in South Florida but will significantly change how federal investigators approach similar cases in the future.
"It's a huge deal," said Greg Miller, a former federal prosecutor who now practices law in Tallahassee. "Up until now, it has been very broadly applied and an effective tool."
The nation's high court determined that the federal law making it illegal to "deprive another of the intangible right of honest services" was constitutionally vague. The unanimous decision, authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, makes the honest services provision applicable only in cases where prosecutors prove bribes or kickbacks were involved.
"The decision got rid of a couple branches but it didn't cut down the entire tree," said Dan Gelber, a state senator and former federal prosecutor who handled corruption cases.
Federal prosecutors used the law to pursue corrupt public officials and business executives who use their position for personal gain. Defense attorneys contend the law allowed prosecutors or overreach and press charges for minor ethical lapses.
Lawyers and legal experts suggest this area of law is far from settled and is likely to emerge as a litigation battleground in the near future.
"The opinion leaves a lot more questions than answers," said Latour "L.T." Lafferty, a former federal prosecutor who focuses on white-collar crime in the Tampa firm Fowler White Boggs. Prosecutors "are going to have a harder time bringing those cases."
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa declined to comment.
At least a dozen political figures are named in five ongoing federal probes into the state's pay-to-play culture of corruption.
The court's ruling isn't expected to cripple the investigations of Alan Mendelsohn, an indicted Republican campaign fundraiser; convicted Ponzi schemer and political donor Scott Rothstein; former House Speaker Ray Sansom; former GOP chairman Jim Greer; and other lawmakers who held Republican Party credit cards.
Three Palm Beach County commissioners who are serving time in federal prison on honest services charges could seek to reverse their convictions. But their chances of a successful appeal is far from certain, legal experts said.
The ruling doesn't affect cases filed under Florida law, but Gelber suggests the court's action gives lawmakers more reason to pass legislation giving state prosecutors broader authority to charge unethical public officials.
"I think the fact that federal prosecutors may have a couple less tools makes the argument that we need to give a greater arsenal to state prosecutors," said Gelber, a Democratic candidate for state attorney general.
Gelber filed legislation (SB 1076) — which died in the 2010 session — to apply the federal concept to prosecute those who violate a position of trust when they defraud the public. But it wasn't as broad as the federal version and dovetailed closely to the court's ruling.
John Frank can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.