The federal charges against resigned Maryland State Police Superintendent Edward Norris rely on a broad public corruption statute now under challenge in a U.S. Supreme Court case, the Baltimore Sun says. The law allows federal prosecutors to pursue virtually any local corruption investigation if the probe is linked to a government agency that received at least $10,000 in federal funds. The law does not require proof of a connection between the alleged offenses and the federal money.
Its wide latitude has made the 1984 law popular with prosecutors. The U.S. attorney for Maryland, Thomas M. DiBiagio, said, “This indictment is consistent with, and in furtherance of, a simple proposition that has guided federal prosecutors in Maryland for more than 50 years: Justice without fear or favor.”
Still, defense attorneys and conservative law scholars express concern that the statute at the heart of the case against Norris goes too far in turning over to federal authorities the jurisdiction of local and state prosecutors.
The Supreme Court will consider a Minneapolis bribery case to help determine whether Congress exceeded its constitutional authority in adopting the law. The statute – sometimes referred to simply by its criminal code number, 666 – was intended to be broadly construed as a way to protect the billions of federal dollars distributed each year through a range of programs.
The case of Minneapolis real estate developer Basim Omar Sarbi, charged under the corruption statute with bribing a City Council member, offered the high court a chance to examine the powerful role of federal prosecutors. A trial judge dismissed the indictment on the grounds that the corruption statute was unconstitutional. A divided 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the charges, but dissenting judge Kermit Bye wrote that by “inserting itself into a domain traditionally reserved for state and local prosecutions, the federal government treats state governments … as untrustworthy organs incapable of policing their own.”
The Sun says the Minneapolis case has important implications for Norris, who is accused of improperly using money from a little-known, off-the-books expense account to pay for liquor and lavish meals and to finance extramarital affairs while he was Baltimore Police commissioner.
His indictment cites criminal code 666 as creating a federal nexus for the case, which raises the possibility that it could face problems if the Supreme Court finds the law unconstitutional.