Friday, November 23, 2007

The Moran Verdict

OK, the holiday's over, so let's roll through this.

Haverford Township Commissioner Fred Moran has been convicted of felony bribery.

He was found guilty of soliciting this "bribe" from the firm hired to develop the Haverford State Hospital site.

His crime was in asking/demanding the sale price of the property to the developer be upped $500,000.

According to prosecutor, he did this, not to line his own pockets, but to enhance his political standing in the community.

“The motive of the crime was to embellish his own political stature … to ride in and save the day,’’ the prosecutor told the jury.

Yes, well.

It was the commonwealth's position that it in bringing the bribery charge it didn't matter a lick that the "benefit" Moran was trying to accrue was not financial.

I remember reading the original grand jury indictment against Moran months ago and being shocked to find the claim that a township commissioner trying to enhance his political stature by selling a piece of township property to a developer for the highest price possible could be construed as "bribery."

It sounded weird to me then and it still does.

Imagine you are selling your house, asking $200,000, and an interested buyer offers $190,000. You agree to $195,000, but then at last minute before the papers are signed you say, "No, I want $200,000." The buyer says, "But we agreed." And you say, "I changed my mind. Call it extortion if you want but I need $200,000." And the real reason is because you think getting the extra $5,000 will impress your wife. That may be a bad business practice, but should it be a crime? And how is that qualitatively different from Moran's behavior.

As I said the other day, if trying to enhance one political stature at the expense of another is a crime, every politician in America should be locked up.

The decision to bring this case, itself was a political decision. While such cases are not unheard of, they are rare. Most prosecutors require some sort of tangible benefit (i.e. money or property) to be sought by someone for themselves or someone close to them before they are hit with a bribery rap.

I have heard, and it somewhat telling, that on the morning of the trial's opening, the AG's office offered to drop the bribery charge if Moran agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor obstruction of justice.

Moran and his attorney Tom Bergstrom declined the offered. Which is to say, they rolled dice... and they lost. They thought the prosecutors was so weak that a jury would see through it.

In fact, the AG's case wasn't weak, it was just weird. Once the jury accepted the premise that an attempt to enhance one's own political stature was the same as taking an envelope stuffed with money, it was all over.

A benefit is a benefit is a benefit is what the AGs office hammered home. And the jury bought it.

I didn't and I don't. I'm sure it won't be the last time I disagree with a jury verdict.

This, I think, should be kept in mind:

The power to prosecute, to put people in jail, is the most awesome one that government has. And there are plenty of prosecutors throughout U.S. history who have abused that power to enhance their own "political stature." (One, today happens to be governor of New York.)

Only in the rarest of circumstances are politically motivated prosecutors held to account for their bad behavior. (Think former DA Michael Nifong in the Duke Lacrosse rape case.)

I'm not saying that the AG's office necessarily abused it's power in this case. I am saying that it had the discretion to conclude a bribery charge was not appropriate. It concluded differently.

I don't know Fred Moran. I don't believe I've ever even spoken to the man. But I have heard very few good things about his political leadership in Haverford.

However, being a lousy political leader or a ruthless one isn't, itself, a crime.

Generally, the proper fate of a bad politician is being challenged and losing at the ballot box.

Criminalizing rather standard behavior in the political area is not the answer to bad representation. For it has a way of snapping back on those who argue most vociferously for it.

Sir Thomas More had it right when he said he would give the Devil himself the benefit of the law for his own sake.

After the guilty verdict, Bergstrom said, “It’s a good reason to stay out of politics.”

He could have just as easily said that before the verdict, even before the trial. The indictment itself, at least, on this particular charge, provides just as good a reason.

18 Comments:

Anonymous law and order said...

Gil - I know you're buddies with criminal defense lawyer Art Donato, but will you please try to make it less obvious that he's feeding you this pro-corruption, anti-prosecution stuff that you love to write about?

The difference between your (or was it Art's?) example and what Moran was accused of doing?

You're selling just your house; Moran was accused of selling his vote.

The more I read your slant, like in that Penn Delco felony arrest for ethics violations, the more I think you're off your rocker.

November 23, 2007 at 10:10 AM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gil: You did overlook one very important point. Fred said that if Goldenberg-Pohlig gave the extra $500,000, the zoning would go more smoothly.

That's called selling your office.

And don't forget that Fred did have quite a bit of control over the zoning board, with Lynne Cohen, Bob Kane and Ed Magargee all on it at the time.

So you really are way off base on this one. I hope you will acknowledge that so that people don't get the wrong impression.

November 23, 2007 at 5:24 PM 
Blogger Spencerblog said...

Nope.

Selling your office means you get to put money in your own pocket, not in the township treasury.

November 23, 2007 at 8:28 PM 
Anonymous e said...

There is almost always more to a criminal case than can be presented to the jury.

Sometimes "the whole truth" does not come out because it may cause a mistrial if the jury is told truthful things that are not "facts of the case" that may lead them to believe that the defendant is a "bad guy". In reality he is a "bad guy" but the prosecution is unable to relay to the jury (and to reporters in the courtroom) facts that are not directly related to these charges or things that may be true, but witnesses are unwilling to come forward to substantiate.

These things may be considered by the prosecution when deciding whether or not to prosecute, however they can't come out at the trial for reasons stated above.

Take Al Capone for example. He was convicted on tax evasion, not for conspiracy to commit murder(s) or running a corrupt organization. And no I'm not saying this Moran was like Al Capone, that was just an example.

November 23, 2007 at 11:18 PM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This verdict will cause 2 things to happen. (1) Local pols will stop negotiating with developers; and (2) the developers will stop negotiating with the pols. Who loses? All of us taxpayers who rely upon our local governments to protect the public treasury.

November 24, 2007 at 6:37 AM 
Blogger Spencerblog said...

Of course, these negotiations should be done openly, in good faith and above board.

Havertown's poisonous political situation is what led to this particular mess.

I joined the developer last year (or was it the year before) in saying that it was taking far too long to decide on a plan.

It was the Andy Lewis faction of the board who was holding up the project for a plan he thought better suited the site. Why? For the public good or to enhance his own political standing?

That is now considered a criminal motive.

The next time a developer is held up by a township board because local residents are in an uproar over its "by-right" plan, will the Attorney General's office bring charges against every member of that board for violating the civil/property rights of the developer? After all, it will be quite apparent that the board's motive was to enhance its political standing in the community, won't it?

November 24, 2007 at 9:48 AM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your headline should read,
"The Moron's Verdict on the Moran Verdict"!

What are you, nuts, Spencer?

November 24, 2007 at 11:48 AM 
Anonymous Eminen said...

wow some posts were deleted. Amazing.
Now Spencer dictates the law. The man is guilty.

And Gil you know better than what you say. An elected official is not someone selling their house. It amazes me that you change your opinions like the wind. If you would ever like to meet me I would show you how hated you are very quickly. Let me know if you are intrested.

November 24, 2007 at 5:12 PM 
Anonymous Frank in Media said...

eminem-

Are you a thug or hiding behind an agenda? My guess is both.

Don't you know what free speech is?

I wonder why you would "show him how hated he is" if you ever met?

It wouldn't be because he made you look like a complete and utter fool in a previous column last month would it?

Stop with the threats and grow up you thug.

November 24, 2007 at 5:32 PM 
Blogger patbiswanger said...

Sorry, Gil, but you are wrong.

It is not true that "selling your office means you get to put money in your own pocket, not in the township treasury."

If Fred Moran had said that if the developer gave $500,000 to AIDS orphans in Africa, Fred would make sure the zoning went more smoothly, he would still be guilty of soliciting a bribe.

You may not like it, but that's the way the law is written, and that's what the Attorney General was enforcing.

November 25, 2007 at 12:22 AM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, now that Moran has been convicted when is the attorney general going to go after the Newtown Towship Supervisors. In a way one political faction is doing the same thing. Holding up a contractor for more money is a crime according to this attorney general. And also trying to enhance your political career as some of the Newtown Supervisors are trying to do should land them in jail. They could share the same cell. I think someone got to you Gil, you stopped talking about this very abruptly. Did the powers in Media tell you to stop....What Gives?????

November 25, 2007 at 9:20 AM 
Blogger patbiswanger said...

Anonymous, you are (still) missing the point.

It's not a crime to hold up the development for more money, if that's just good honest negotiating.

It's not a crime to seek to advance your political fortunes (at least not under Pennsylvania law; it is under federal law, more on that below*).

It is a crime to offer to exercise the discretion vested in you by the voters in a certain way in exchange for more money, whether it goes into your own pocket or not.

So you can say, I won't sell you this Township land unless you pay more money.

But you can't say, give me more money and I will make the zoning go more smoothly.

And I am not sure any of this pertains to the Newtown situation. Are they selling public land there? Or just dickering with the developer over the scope/nature of the development? If the latter, the analysis is completely different.

* Under federal law, there is something called "honest services fraud" under which an elected official can be held if he does not give his constituents full "honest services," i.e., he puts some other interest above those of his constituents. That's the statute under which Joe Loeper was nailed. But that's in federal court, not state, and the feds didn't want to take the Haverford case because they said they'd been accused too much of poaching on the AG's preserve and "federalizing" state concerns.

November 26, 2007 at 11:46 PM 
Anonymous Bill in Delco said...

Patbiswanger-

I'm a Newtown Square resident. The controversey here is that the Board wont approve a project that is overwhelmingly supported by more than 90% of the residents in our township. Instead, the developers will be forced to build a by-right project that no one really wants.

This article explains the situation:

http://www.delcotimes.com/WebApp/appmanager/JRC/Daily?_nfpb=true&_pageLabel=pg_article&r21.pgpath=%2FDCT%2FOpinion&r21.content=%2FDCT%2FOpinion%2FTopStoryList_Story_1099023

November 27, 2007 at 11:25 AM 
Anonymous randal said...

They’re in the same spot out in Middletown right now. A handful of shrill obstructionists derailed the nice Franklin Mint Town Center plan and now the developer is gonna go ahead with the much less desirable by-right plan. Just what we need, more office parks.

See how shortsighted emotional Liberalism always backfires and ends up causing more harm than good.

November 27, 2007 at 11:43 AM 
Anonymous Bill in Delco said...

randal-

I agree with your liberalism comments 100%.

It mystifies me though that the biggest opponent of the Town Center here in Newtown Square is Supervisor Linda Houldin, a fellow Republican and self-described conservative.

November 27, 2007 at 1:12 PM 
Anonymous randal said...

I don’t know the woman but I do know that the people opposed to the Franklin Center Development with the shrill “NO CITY!” signs on their lawns are also the ones who had Kerry and Sestak signs before.
Yeah, I notice such things. Kinda hard to miss that Scarlet “L”.

Every LibDem is a wannabe activist these days. That childish emotion is a b!tch.

November 27, 2007 at 9:31 PM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Begstrom's ego cost Moran his freedom; he shoulda taken the deal. Never bet against the house Fred, they always win.

November 28, 2007 at 11:05 AM 
Blogger patbiswanger said...

Gil: you're getting there.

In your column today you finally admit that Fred Moran offered to sell his office by making the zoning go more smoothly.

So I was thinking, finally, he gets it.

But no, instead, you minimize it, by saying that the zoning would have been a snap anyway, so no harm no foul, right?

Wrong. Whether the zoning was inevitable or not -- and it's a lot more complicated than you seem to realize -- the fact remains that Fred offered to speed up the process in exchange for $500,000.

That's a crime. You shouldn't minimize it.

November 28, 2007 at 10:00 PM 

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