HARRISBURG - Former high-ranking Democratic State Rep. Mike Veon - who served jail time for misusing a nonprofit for his own benefit - was awarded a new trial Tuesday after a state high court justice called his conviction a "criminalization of politics."
The Supreme Court ruled that a Dauphin County judge erred when he told jurors hearing the case against Veon, now 59, that the legislator did not have to gain financially to be convicted of violating the conflict-of-interest law.
The Supreme Court's main opinion said the crime must involve a financial benefit and that intangible political benefits are not sufficient.
"The trial court's jury instruction here made of the statute a meat ax, finding (or creating) a conflict of interest in every dais, at each parade, and at every ribbon-cutting, given that the very nature of seeking to satisfy one's constituents and secure reelection all but requires the taking of official action to secure intangible political gains," wrote Justice David Wecht in announcing the decision. "This criminalization of politics is a bridge too far."
The court ordered a new trial on the conflict of interest charge but did not say whether that also included the nine other counts on which he was convicted.
Veon's lawyer, Joel Sansone, argued that the decision means a new trial is required on all charges and predicted prosecutors would not have the appetite to retry his client.
"This was a total and complete vindication," Sansone said. "This is a total victory. The only reason for this was to clear Mike's name, and we have fought these politically motivated charges all along."
A spokesman for the Attorney General's Office said only that it was reviewing the decision.
Justice Christine Donohue said she would have simply dismissed the conflict-of-interest charge.
Veon was a Democratic House whip and a powerful figure in state politics before his arrest in 2008. He was first tried and convicted for his role in a scheme to use state funds to pay bonuses to legislative staffers for campaign work, and in a second trial was convicted of misusing taxpayer money through the Beaver Initiative for Growth nonprofit organization.
The court's ruling pertains to the Beaver Initiative case, for which Veon was found guilty in 2012. The decision does not involve the bonus case, for which Veon was sentenced to six to 14 years and ordered to pay $1.9 million in restitution.
The high court said the county judge also should not have granted $135,000 in restitution to the state Department of Community and Economic Development, saying the agency was not a victim under the relevant law and had not reimbursed a qualifying victim. Wecht suggested state lawmakers might want to revise the law.
"It cannot be denied that, in this case, public funds were diverted to inappropriate purposes and thus were unavailable to be used in the ways intended, effectively victimizing the commonwealth and its citizens," Wecht wrote. "As a consequence of this ruling, these are moneys that the commonwealth will never recover."