Sunday, March 4th, 2012

Off The Waterfront

United States v. Coppola, No. 10-0065-cr (2d Cir. February 14, 2012) (Raggi, Lynch, Wallace, CJJ)

This very long, and very fact-bound mob-related RICO appeal covers very little new ground. However, it has an interesting discussion of the applicability of Skilling to extortion cases.

Defendant Michael Coppola spent three decades rising through the ranks of the Genovese crime family, ultimately becoming a captain. The particular conduct that resulted in his conviction, and sixteen-year sentence, related to the family’s criminal control of the New York and New Jersey waterfronts in general, and over the longshoremen’s union – ILA Local 1235, in particular. The family used intimidation and fear to extort money from the both the union and trucking companies doing business at the docks. The family also controlled the union directly, through three successive local presidents who were in the family’s pocket.

On appeal, Coppola challenged the validity of the extortion RICO predicates, invoking Skilling v. United States, 130 S.Ct. 2896 (2010). Skilling held that, in fraud prosecutions predicated on schemes to deprive the victim of the intangible right to honest services, there must be a bribery or kickback “core” to the conduct. Here, the extortion predicates were indeed based on an intangible property theory, that “property” being the statutory right of union members to receive the loyal service of the union’s officials. Coppola argued that there was little difference between this intangible right and the right to “honest services” at issue in Skilling.

But the circuit disagreed. Skilling did not identify vagueness concerns with all intangible rights, just the particularly ill-defined right to “honest services” mentioned in the fraud statutes. There is no equivalent vagueness in the statutory definition of a union official’s duties; the statute specifically enumerates both the duties and the persons from and to whom they are owed. Finally, the intangible right at issue here does not define the predicate crime; the Hobbs Act does, and that statute clearly does not proscribe mere self-dealing. Thus, the ambiguity concerns in the fraud statute that animated Skilling are not present under the Hobbs Act.

Comments are closed.