Supreme Court Sides with Former Portage Mayor in Latest Ruling Limiting Public Anti-Corruption Laws

The federal criminal code prohibits bribery for federal officials and state officials in separate provisions. For federal officials, in 18 U.S.C. § 201, Congress separately prohibited accepting things of value intending to be influenced in an official’s job, but also accepting things of value “for or because of” an official act already taken. The former refers to what people commonly deem “bribes,” and carries a 15-year potential sentence. The latter refers to what people common deem “gratuities” or “gifts” given after the fact; illegal gratuities for federal officials carry a two-year potential sentence.

For state officials, however, in 18 U.S.C. § 666, Congress passed a single prohibition. State officials cannot accept things of value intending to be influenced or rewarded; doing so carries a 10-year potential sentence. No doubt, the language of “influence” refers to classic bribery. For decades, federal prosecutors in the majority of jurisdictions have taken the position that the “rewarded” language also prohibits gratuities; things of value given for acts already done. Armed with this statute and its 10-year potential sentence, section 666 has become a favorite charging strategy for federal prosecutors to aim at local officials.

One such official was Taft client James Snyder, the former Mayor of Portage, Indiana. Snyder ran for election with a platform promising to update the City’s garbage collection efforts. The City put out a public bid for modernized garbage trucks, and a local vendor won. After the vendor won, a check was written to Snyder for $13,000. Snyder and the vendor maintained that the check was not connected to the trucks, and instead was a consulting agreement the parties reached after the bids were complete. Federal prosecutors, however, maintained that the check was a “reward” under section 666, or an after-the-fact gratuity.

A Taft team of Jackie Bennett, Jayna Cacioppo, and Vivek Hadley represented Snyder in two hard-fought trials. In the first, Taft secured an acquittal of a second section 666 charge (relating to the City’s towing operators), but the jury found that the $13,000 was an illegal gratuity (and thus a “reward” under section 666). After extensive post-trial briefing concerning a separate issue — the government had revoked two crucial witnesses’ testimonial immunity mid-trial as a matter of “gamesmanship” aimed at discouraging them from testifying, the district court found — Taft reversed the guilty verdict regarding the $13,000. The government elected to retry the garbage truck charge. In the face of decades of prosecutor-friendly Circuit precedent, Taft continued to insist that the jury should be instructed that section 666 covers bribery only, not gratuities. The prosecution fought, and the district court declined to give, that instruction. Again, the jury found Snyder guilty of accepting a “reward.” The prosecutors sought a five-year prison sentence. The district court entered a 21-month sentence, but also granted Snyder bond pending appeal.

On June 26, 2024, the U.S. Supreme Court — in a 6-3 opinion authored by Justice Kavanaugh — held that Taft and Snyder had it correct; section 666 applies solely to bribery, not gratuities. The Court highlighted the statute’s text (and its notable differences with the federal officials’ bribery statute); the disparate penalties; federalism concerns; and the absurd results that could follow from the government’s reading. As just one example, if a parent wanted to thank a public-school teacher for a job well done, and handed her a $10 Starbucks gift card, under the government’s reading that could constitute a “reward” connected with the teacher’s public employment. Both the teacher and the parent could theoretically face 10 years in federal prison. Although the government promised not to enforce the statute against such “innocuous” examples, the Court has repeatedly held that it would not interpret criminal statutes based solely on the promise of wise prosecutorial discretion.

In adopting Taft’s and Snyder’s trial court argument, the Supreme Court has effected a sea change in public corruption law. The Snyder ruling overrules the prosecutor-friendly precedent of many circuits, and cabins section 666 to the scope Congress originally intended. The result also highlights the importance of mounting an aggressive trial strategy, one that combines effective factual defense (obtaining a jury acquittal of the first section 666 charge) with a robust legal defense (preserving the strongest appellate options available under the law).

Bennett is a trial attorney and former federal prosecutor. He represents individuals and corporations in high-stakes commercial, civil, and white-collar criminal litigation, as well as regulatory investigations by state and federal agencies. He has extensive experience in matters involving internal corporate investigations, corporate governance, securities regulation, foreign corrupt practices, patent infringement, environmental crimes, and an array of contract and business tort actions.

Cacioppo is a partner in the Indianapolis office of Taft. Her practice concentrates in the areas of complex commercial, civil, and white-collar criminal litigation, as well as regulatory investigations by state and federal agencies. She is a trial lawyer with significant courtroom experience in both criminal and civil matters.

Hadley is a litigation associate in Indianapolis with significant experience in every aspect of commercial and criminal litigation, from jury trials through appeals.

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