Ask any modern day professional and they’ll likely agree – connections to people matter. Regardless of industry, it seems indisputable that networking is not just important, but that mutually beneficial relationships are an invaluable resource.  Social media companies are a perfect illustration of this societal trend. Take for example companies like LinkedIn and Google+ that have capitalized on the idea that the larger of a society we become, the more important it is to develop and sustain relationships that are based on common interests and goals. The development of online networking is nothing more than technology’s response to what has facilitated the growth of business for years, specifically, the notion that developing and maintaining these relationships is a good thing, especially if we can help one another achieve professional success.

But what happens when these relationships blur the lines between a friendship and corrupt behavior? What would it take for these relationships to transform into ammunition to support a federal prosecutor’s theory that the friendship has become criminal in nature? A review of the recent line of cases targeting public figures brings to the forefront the particular circumstances that might result in the transition of a congenial relationship into grounds to bring federal criminal charges.

Most recently, on April 1, 2015, Senator Robert Menendez was indicted on fourteen counts related to federal corruption. The indictment charges Sen. Menendez with bribery, honest services fraud, false statements, Travel Act violations, and criminal conspiracy stemming from the alleged corrupt relationship with Dr. Salomon E. Melgen, an eye surgeon and personal friend living in Florida (and who as of yesterday, is separately facing Medicare fraud charges). The prosecution’s theory is clear – Sen. Menendez accepted lavish gifts and campaign donations from Melgen in exchange for advocating on his behalf using his political influence, and to make matters worse, failed to disclose these gifts for a number of years.

If considered outside the context of a criminal investigation, the description of the relationship between the Senator and the doctor reads like a friendship, albeit more extravagant than most. Nonetheless, there must be some evidence to prove their relationship rises to the level of corruption which requires a quid pro quo, or a specific intent to give or receive something of value in exchange for an official act. See United States v. Sun-Diamond Growers in Cali., 526 U.S. 398 (1999). Courts have interpreted the federal bribery statute, and similarly honest services fraud based on a theory of bribery, to require something more than mere gifts to curry favor of a public official. See United States v. Bryant, 655 F.3d 232 (3rd Cir. 2011). To this end, Sen. Menendez has already engaged in efforts to put forth the “friendship defense” as evidenced by his statements after the indictment came down.

The case against former Sen. Ted Stevens is a prime example of what can go wrong when federal prosecutors stretch the limits of federal corruption charges based on the mischaracterization of a personal relationship.  Following the conviction on seven counts of failing to report improper gifts, Attorney General Eric Holder moved to set aside the verdict after discovering blatant misconduct by the prosecutors. A 500-page report confirmed that not only was exculpatory evidence withheld, but the prosecutors in the case knowingly introduced evidence they knew to be false, in order to substantiate their theory that Sen. Stevens unlawfully accepted gifts from his friend, a general contractor that performed renovations to his personal residence.

Bribery and honest services fraud are not the only federal crimes where professional relationships are at play. In a recent but unrelated case, two former portfolio managers at different investment firms, Anthony Chiasson and Todd Newman, just had their convictions of insider trading overturned. The Second Circuit recently denied the government’s request for reconsideration of the court’s December 10 decision that more or less held that mere discussions among professional friends and colleagues are not sufficient to uphold allegations of insider trading.

Perhaps recognizing the danger of misinterpreting modern day professional relationships, the Second Circuit made clear that “a personal benefit by the mere fact of a friendship, particularly of a casual or social nature” is not sufficient by itself, and as such, there must be some evidence of an expectation to receive something “of some consequence.” See United States v. Newman, 773 F.3d 438, 452 (2d Cir. 2014). The decision dealt a huge setback to federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York who have been relentlessly targeting Wall Street since the financial crisis, and may serve as an interesting backdrop when trying to develop a defense in the context of federal bribery and corruption charges.

As a final consideration, the decision of Citizens United is going to influence the case against Sen. Menendez, at least to a certain extent. The Supreme Court’s decision in the landmark case opened the floodgates as far as campaign donations are concerned, and as evidenced in the Menendez indictment, there are two instances where Melgen contributed to an independent super PAC. The indictment argues that these contributions, totaling $600,000, were intended to influence the official acts of Sen. Menendez, despite the fact that they are otherwise consistent with the ruling in Citizens United.

I think we can all agree that public figures should be held to a higher standard, particularly where their professional integrity is at issue. However, in a post Citizens United world, the question of what constitutes ‘normal’ behavior of friends, particularly among public figures and their financially supportive friends, remains open to interpretation. A hard-line answer may come in the form of legislation or another Supreme Court ruling, but until then, the Government will undoubtedly continue to use professional friendships to its advantage in federal corruption cases.

The author of this blog is Margaret S. Ververis, a Senior Associate at Ferrari & Associates, P.C. specializing in federal criminal defense matters and U.S. economic sanctions representation. For questions regarding this post, please contact Ms. Ververis at (202) 440-2581 or ververis@ferrariassociatespc.com.