Police blotter: Schools' IT chief loses bribery appeal

No reduced sentence for Pennsylvania official who admitted to taking kickbacks linked to a federal E-rate program.

"Police blotter" is a weekly News.com report on the intersection of technology and the law.

What: An information technology official for a Pennsylvania school district appeals his three-year prison sentence for involvement in a bribery case that netted him nearly $2 million in kickback payments related to the federally funded E-rate program, which subsidizes computer equipment for schools and libraries.

When: Decided March 10 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit.

Outcome: The sentence is reasonable, the court said in an opinion written by U.S. Court of International Trade Chief Judge Jane Restani, who was designated to sit on the three-judge panel.

What happened, according to the court: In spring 2002, John Henry Weaver was serving as director of information technology of the Harrisburg School District in Pennsylvania, which had just awarded a company called EMO Communications a contract to supply approximately 800 laptop computers. The project would receive the bulk of its funding from the Federal Communications Commission's multimillion-dollar E-rate subsidy program, which has faced its own allegations of mismanagement over the years.

When EMO's Ronald Morrett first submitted his bid, the computers in question cost $7,600 each. In the two years that it took the government to sign off on the deal, that price had plummeted to between $1,600 and $1,700 per unit. But EMO never changed the bid, and the government approved the higher-priced contract.

With the deal finalized, Morrett and Weaver made an agreement: Morrett would pay kickbacks to the school official. In April 2002, Weaver accepted a lump sum of $1.4 million, justified by a phony invoice. He went on to accept a check for $500,000 and then 13 additional payments ranging from $5,000 to $600,000--for a total of about $1.9 million--up until May 2003.

During that time, E-rate representatives called Weaver on several occasions to verify that Morrett was following through on his contract. Weaver always confirmed, truthfully, that he had received the specified computers. Those responses led a trial court in Pennsylvania to determine--and correctly so, the 3rd Circuit affirmed--that Weaver's approval played an important role in ensuring Morrett's firm continued receiving "progress payments" from E-rate.

In December 2003, Weaver pleaded guilty to conspiring to engage in bribery. Convicted and sentenced in March 2005, he was handed a 36-month prison sentence, down from the 60-month maximum prescribed for his offense level. In deciding the time frame, the trial court considered Weaver's nonexistent criminal history but also enhanced his penalties for accepting what it determined were "multiple bribes."

Weaver challenged that reasoning, arguing that his offenses were "essentially, a single bribe over a period of time" and that the court should have lowered his sentence further.

The 3rd Circuit found no error in the trial court's conclusions, deeming Weaver's sentence "reasonable." According to Guideline 2C1.1 in the 2003 federal sentencing manual, an offense can be considered a single incident of bribery only if it meets certain conditions, such as being "a number of installment payments for a single action," the appeals court noted, concluding Weaver's case didn't fit that description.

The FCC has since barred both Weaver and Morrett, who was also convicted on the same bribery charge in May 2005, from participation in the E-rate program.

Excerpt from Restani's March 10 opinion (click here for PDF): Weaver claims that...he did not accept multiple bribes because there was insufficient evidence to conclude that progress payments to Morrett were directly related to kickback payments to Weaver. Even if we were to find that this counseled against finding multiple bribes, this would not lead ineluctably to the conclusion that only one bribe took place. As the court in (Arshad v. United States, a 2001 bribery case) noted, "the existence of multiple payees and payment methods may demonstrate the existence of multiple bribes."

The payments from Morrett to Weaver do not bear any hallmarks of installment payments as noted in the comments to Guideline 2C1.1. The approximately 13 individual payments varied from $5,000 to over $600,000. The amount of compensation Weaver received continued to grow over the course of his relationship with Morrett. An initial request for $1 million later became $1.4 million, which was supplemented by an additional $500,000 at the end of the scheme. Thus, the payments followed neither a "regular schedule," nor a progression toward a "final fixed sum." Likewise, the method of payment varied considerably--money was given directly to Weaver, then channeled through relatives, and then directed through a corporation controlled by Weaver. These facts point strongly toward the conclusion that Weaver accepted multiple bribes.

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