The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday threw out the federal bribery conviction of Dallas developer Ruel Hamilton, saying the jury was not properly instructed on the requirements of the law.
The Dallas jury convicted Hamilton in June 2021 of bribing Dwaine Caraway and Carolyn Davis with money when they were on the City Council to help his low-income housing developments. The Fifth Circuit said the jury was improperly told a “quid pro quo,” or some benefit in exchange for the money, was not necessary to convict.
The money Hamilton gave the council members was a gratuity and not quid pro quo bribes as required by the law, the judges wrote in their opinion. The ruling struck a blow to federal public corruption cases. It was not immediately clear Tuesday evening whether it could affect recent bribery convictions like the one involving a former Richardson mayor, Laura Jordan, who was sentenced to six years in prison earlier this month.
Hamilton, 65, was sentenced in November 2021 to eight years in federal prison. But he was granted extra time to report to prison due to ongoing health problems and never began his sentence. It will be up to the U.S. attorney’s office to decide whether to retry him. A spokeswoman said the office did not have any comment.
Hamilton’s attorney declined to comment Tuesday and attorneys for Caraway and Davis could not be reached for comment.
With its opinion, the Fifth Circuit is now in the minority, having joined two other circuits in the U.S. that said the federal bribery statute in question criminalizes only quid pro quo bribes and not gratuities. Five other federal circuits have ruled that the law covers both bribes and illegal gratuities.
That may increase the chances of the U.S. Supreme Court taking up the matter to resolve the split.
Dallas prosecutors argued during last year’s two-week trial that Hamilton paid Davis and Caraway for their support — and approvals in one case — of his development projects while they served on the council. His company, AmeriSouth Realty Group, built apartment complexes in southern neighborhoods.
Hamilton was accused of funneling bribe payments to Davis through her nonprofit of choice, run by a close friend and associate of hers. The roughly $40,000 in bribes Hamilton paid to Davis from 2013 to 2015 included “illegal campaign donations for the candidates of her choice,” prosecutors said.
In exchange, Davis lobbied for and voted to recommend that Hamilton’s Royal Crest housing project receive valuable state low-income housing tax credits, according to prosecutors.
However, it never received the tax benefit.
The Fifth Circuit judges wrote Hamilton received nothing “tangible” in return for his payments. And in a footnote, they wrote that a broad reading of the federal bribery statute invites a “hoard of constitutional problems.”
Reading the law as if it covers “all sorts of interactions with local public officials raises First Amendment, federalism, and due process concerns,” the judges wrote.
Davis pleaded guilty for her role in the scheme in March 2019 but died four months later in a car crash that also killed her daughter.
Caraway, 69, resigned from office in 2018 after pleading guilty to unrelated federal corruption charges involving the former Dallas County Schools bus agency. Caraway was sentenced in 2019 to more than four years in prison for the bus case and testified against Hamilton during the trial. Caraway was never tried in the case involving Hamilton.