There was a time when political corruption might have been described — as a former Supreme Court justice once said of pornography — as something you knew when you saw it.
But last summer, after the court issued a landmark decision overturning the graft conviction of Bob McDonnell, the onetime governor of Virginia, it became much harder to define what it meant for a politician to partake in an illegal quid pro quo.
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After that ruling, many prosecutors and government watchdogs expressed anxiety that the court had created a safe harbor for a subtle, wink-and-nod version of corruption. The court had essentially made it legal, these critics said, for elected officials to enrich themselves by engaging in unseemly forms of transactional politics.
That argument could apply to the case of Sheldon Silver, once the mighty speaker of the New York state Assembly, whose corruption conviction was overturned by an appeals court Thursday — among the first federal verdicts to be reversed as a result of the McDonnell decision.
While cautioning that Silver, a Democrat, may yet be convicted at a retrial, several legal experts said his case had set a precedent that could affect those of other politicians found guilty of corruption — and could also have a chilling effect on new public integrity investigations.
“Prosecutors were concerned from the start that the…
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