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Friendship Means A Lot In Philadelphia, And Why Honest Services Fraud Just Isn’t The Same After Skilling

Christopher Wright and Andrew Teitelman were friends. As sometimes happens to the best of us, Mr. Wright fell on hard times. He was in the middle of a divorce, and he was out of cash. His mother had just died from cancer. He had a drinking problem that was getting worse.

Mr. Teitelman helped his friend out – he got him into rehab and, as a lawyer, Mr. Teitelman represented Mr. Wright in his divorce proceeding when he could no longer afford his first divorce lawyer. He also represented Mr. Wright in a foreclosure proceeding and, later, in an eviction proceeding. For all this legal work, Mr. Wright paid $350.

1317372_philadelphia_.jpgMr. Teitelman also helped Mr. Wright get housing when Mr. Wright had to move. Mr. Teitelman’s sole client (aside from Mr. Wright) was Ravi Chawla. Mr. Chawla was a developer, who had an empty apartment building. Mr. Teitelman persuaded Mr. Chawla to let Mr. Wright stay in one of the units of that apartment building, for free. Mr. Chawla also tried to send a multi-million dollar real estate deal to Mr. Wright to try to get some money in Mr. Wright’s pocket during this time – Mr. Wright was a realtor – though nothing came of the deal.

If Mr. Wright hadn’t also been the Chief of Staff of a member of the City Council of Philadelphia during this time, the nice things Mr. Teitelman and Mr. Chawla did for Mr. Wright would have been much less likely to get the three of them indicted in federal court.

Though, perhaps, the problem was that Mr. Wright did nice things to Mr. Chawla too.

Mr. Chawla really wanted a law passed that would have made zoning easier for new development. Mr. Wright worked with his boss to get the law passed.

Mr. Chawla needed information from various city departments. Mr. Wright, asking from a City Council office, was able to get it more quickly than Mr. Chawla would be able to get it on his own. Mr. Wright was happy to help that way.

The three men were charged with honest services fraud and wire fraud. The Third Circuit decided an appeal of their trial conviction in United States v. Wright.

Honest Services Fraud

A few years ago, honest services fraud under 18 U.S.C. ยง 1346 could be charged in two ways relevant to this case. The jury was instructed that they could find the three men guilty of an honest services fraud scheme if the government proved either that (a) there was a conflict of interest for Mr. Wright that he didn’t disclose, or (b) that Mr. Wright was taking money in exchange for providing a service in his official duties.

That changed in United States v. Skilling – decided after the trial in this case. In Skilling, the Supreme Court, ruling on an appeal from ex-Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling‘s conviction, held that the conflict of interest theory was not a constitutional reading of honest services fraud.

The jury convicted the three men of honest services fraud. It’s pretty straightforward to see that this violates the conflict of interest theory of honest services fraud – Mr. Wright had a conflict of interest based on the largess he accepted from his friends. He didn’t disclose it.

When Skilling was decided, the government did not oppose the release of the three men from prison pending the resolution of the appeal.

The Third Circuit After Skilling

The question in this appeal was whether the government had proven that the men committed quid pro quo honest services fraud beyond a reasonable doubt. The Third Circuit found that the government hadn’t met that burden.

In essence, the government would have had to show that Mr. Wright helped out Mr. Teitelman and Chawla in his performance of his duties because they had helped him with his personal situation. And, conversely, that Mr. Teitelman and Mr. Chawla helped Mr. Wright because he would then perform official acts.

The government’s proof fell short on both sides of the quid pro quo.

First, Mr. Wright worked for a councilman who was, everyone agreed, pro-developer. The councilman directed his staff to help folks out in the developer community. There was trial testimony that his staff did a lot of favors and secured a lot of information for many members of the business community. So it looks like Mr. Wright was not uniquely favoring Mr. Chawla.

Second, Mr. Teitelman, in particular, was friends with Mr. Wright. This, in itself, provided a motivation beyond a corrupt scheme. As the Third Circuit said,

The evidence establishes, and the Government does not dispute, that Wright and Teitelman were close friends. It is equally clear that Wright was in dire personal straits at the time. His mother had just died of cancer, he was embroiled in a marital fight and divorce, he was essentially broke, and he was drinking heavily. Teitelman was among Wright’s few friends who intervened and helped him enter rehabilitation. . . . While friendship is no bar to an honest services fraud conviction (as the parties involved are often friends), these facts show a close friendship. Here, the jury could have found that friendship, not fraud, motivated Teitelman to find the apartment in Center City and to act as Wright’s lawyer.

Because the government had not proven honest services fraud on the remaining viable count beyond a reasonable doubt, the conviction for honest services fraud was vacated.