Supreme Court hears bribery case that could impact DC lobbyists

Public officials aren't allowed to take bribes. Neither are public employees. But what about people who are close to public officials, such as lobbyists or family members? The Supreme Court considered that question on Monday.

"When a public official accepts money to convince the government to do something, we call him a crook. But when a private citizen accepts money to convince the government to do something, we call him a lobbyist."

That's the opening line of Joe Percoco's brief. Percoco is a former top aide to Andrew Cuomo, the former governor of New York. Percoco was convicted of bribery-related charges for taking money from a real estate developer.

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However, Percoco took the money during an eight-month window after leaving Cuomo's office and before joining it again.

Now, the question is: Was Percoco close enough to being a public employee or someone with enough influence over public officials to get charged under federal bribery laws?

After oral arguments Monday morning, it sounds like the Supreme Court isn't willing to stretch bribery laws quite that far.

Percoco was a private citizen when the pocketed about $35,000 to push a real estate deal through. He was not on the government payroll at the time he took the money, and he was not acting in an official position.

If it is ruled that he can be charged, that could open up a lot of people to potential prosecution from lobbyists to donors, even family members of public officials.

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"If this guy is going to be prosecuted and convicted, where do you stop it? Because in the First Amendment, there is a phrase that you have an unfettered right to petition your government for a redress of grievances. It's a very fancy way of saying, lobbying," says attorney Craig Engle.

D.C. has a high number of lobbyists and other employees who go in and out of the government and could be affected by the Court's decision in this case. Government officials are usually required to take "cooling off periods" after they leave public work to prevent something like this from happening.

The Justices will likely decide the case sometime next year before the end of the term in late June or early July.