Why Clearing A Cop's Name Matters In Abramoff Scandal

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Monday, March 20, 2006

A former D.C. cop could alter national politics this year.

Here's why: An appeals court decision that involves the police officer could well make it harder for prosecutors to make a case against lawmakers implicated in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

Pundits have long predicted that testimony by Abramoff would produce a string of indictments of federal officials this year and that those, in turn, would so tarnish the reputation of his fellow Republicans that the party could lose control of the House, the Senate or both in the November elections.

But that was before the surprising court decision that helped a former Metropolitan Police Department detective named Nelson Valdes.

According to the court's record, Valdes ran license plates through a law enforcement database and provided the vehicle-owner information he collected to a person who paid him cash. He was convicted in 2002 of taking illegal gratuities.

But a three-judge appeals court panel recently reversed that decision. It said, in an opinion dated Feb. 24, that his actions weren't a formal part of his duties and therefore weren't covered by the statute.

Scholars say that as a result of the Valdes case, the process of charging lawmakers and their aides with wrongdoing in the Abramoff scandal (and others like it) will be more difficult.

"Now, virtually every time the government tries to bring an official-acts prosecution, the defense will cite the Valdes case," said George D. Brown, professor at Boston College Law School. "The decision raises a substantial element of doubt,"

Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, agreed. "I'd be very troubled if I were in the Justice Department pursuing these things," she said.

The federal appeals court here in the District decided that officials such as Valdes should not be convicted for taking payoffs unless their behavior involved a "decision or action" that affected a "formal government decision made in fulfillment of government's public responsibilities."

"Casual and informal use of government resources," which in this case included Valdes's database queries, the decision added, would not qualify as the kind of official act that could be prosecuted under the law.

His conviction on three counts of receiving an illegal gratuity was overturned, and other bribery-like cases could be turned upside down, as well.

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