A major donor to Mayor Bill de Blasio pleaded guilty to using campaign contributions as bribes to buy better treatment at City Hall — and yet the mayor, who took the money and aided the donor, was not charged with a crime.
Another donor pleaded guilty to honest services wire fraud that included making political contributions in exchange of official action — and again, no charges for the mayor.
The outcome has led some, including the WNYC radio host Brian Lehrer, to an obvious question.
“How can someone be guilty of giving you a bribe and you not be guilty of taking it?” Mr. Lehrer asked Mr. de Blasio on Friday.
It’s abundantly clear,” the mayor said. But it wasn’t.
“This man did a lot of bad things in a lot of places,” Mr. de Blasio said of Harendra Singh, a restaurateur who pleaded guilty to bribing the mayor. “I’m someone who never did, never would be involved in such an effort.”
Several factors were in play.
The United States Supreme Court set a much higher bar for public corruption cases with its 2016 ruling that reversed the bribery conviction of the former Virginia governor, Bob McDonnell. In the ruling, the court determined that making introductions or setting up meetings, even in exchange for gifts or financial benefits, did not constitute a crime.
As a consequence, several prominent corruption convictions were set aside, and prosecutors have become more cautious in taking on such cases.
Furthermore, bribery cases against elected officials based on campaign contributions are rare, the legal experts said. That is in part because the Supreme Court has drawn a clear distinction between a legal contribution to a political campaign and other kinds of payments like cash, gifts or other benefits that in effect go into the pocket of a public servant.
It may also have been that it was simply easier for prosecutors to bring charges against the person buying access, because the men admitted guilt, in the face of abundant evidence, as part of plea deals in which they agreed to cooperate with the government against other defendants. Mr. Singh is a witness in corruption trials on Long Island; Mr. Rechnitz testified against a labor official who was accused of steering millions of dollars of officers’ retirement funds into a hedge fund in exchange for promised kickbacks.