Bont: Baseball, politics and the curveballs of crime and punishment

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Criminal Justice: Jonathan BontIf you’ve ever watched the 1980s movie “Eight Men Out,” you may have noticed that the courtroom scene was filmed in Courtroom 202 (the Judge Steckler ceremonial courtroom) of the Birch Byah Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Indianapolis. There is a story passed around the courthouse that during a break from filming one day, Judge Steckler’s judicial assistant Miss Murphy aroused a sleeping cast member from the gallery with a stern admonition that “Nobody sleeps in Judge Steckler’s courtroom.” When the cast member responded “Do you know who I am?”, Miss Murphy replied “Yes Mr. Sheen, I know who you are, and nobody sleeps in Judge Steckler’s courtroom.” (Storytelling credit goes to the late Judge Larry McKinney).

“Eight Men Out” tells the story of the 1919 Chicago White Sox teammates who were indicted for accepting money from gamblers to intentionally lose the World Series. The Chicago “Black Sox” were acquitted by a jury in 1921, but were then banned from baseball by a former federal judge turned baseball commissioner. To quote then-Commissioner Landis, “no player who throws a ballgame … will ever play professional baseball.”

A hundred years later, in January of this year, Major League Baseball investigators confirmed that the Houston Astros used a video camera in center field since 2017 to surreptitiously record their opposing teams’ catcher’s signs to his pitcher. The signs were then relayed to Astros batters through players and staff banging on trash cans from the Astros dugout prior to every off pitch. The scandal, which has been dubbed #trashcangate, arguably resulted in the Astros winning the World Series in 2017 and placing first in their division in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Contrary to the Black Sox of the 1920s, no Astros player has been disciplined for participating in the scheme. Major League Baseball has even gone so far as to protect the Astros by issuing a stern warning to the rest of the league not to intentionally throw at Astros batters when they take the field in a few weeks.

Back to the 1920s, also in Chicago, Warren G. Harding was nominated by the Republican Party to run for president. Harding won the election and appointed his friend, Albert Bacon Fall, as Secretary of the Interior. Fall accepted bribes from two American oil companies in return for leasing rights to a Navy oil reserve in Wyoming. Fall was charged and convicted (apparently everyone went to trial back then) of bribery for the “Teapot Dome scandal” and sentenced to a year in prison.

Fast forward again 100 years, and much like baseball players, politicians (or political operatives) are still making headlines for not playing the game by the rules. Two weeks ago, United States District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the District of Columbia sentenced Roger Stone to 40 months in prison after Stone was found guilty of obstructing Congress’ investigation into Russian involvement with WikiLeaks’ release of Hillary Clinton’s emails leading up to the 2016 presidential election. The case took an interesting turn late in the proceedings when the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia recommended a sentence of six to nine years and was rebuffed by Attorney General William Barr, who subsequently amended the government’s recommended sentence to one “far less” than its original recommendation.

There was a lot of angst expressed over the attorney general’s override of the original sentencing recommendation in Stone’s case. It is not every day that four line prosecutors withdraw from a high-profile case after the attorney general of the United States intervenes over a sentencing recommendation. The irregularity of the narrative understandably raised questions about political favoritism. However, the end result, i.e., the government’s revised sentencing recommendation and the judge’s sentence, was in line with prior obstruction cases (cited by the government in both of its briefs), where sentences ranged from six to 35 months. That is definitely not the case with the slap on the wrist received by the Astros organization — but not its players — for cheating over the course of three years to win hundreds of games, generating millions of dollars in revenue. It will be interesting to see if any other investigative body takes a swing at the Astros over this debacle.•

Jonathan Bont practices in the areas of criminal defense, business litigation and government compliance at Paganelli Law Group. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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