Delaware’s Supreme Court is weighing whether to overturn the unprecedented convictions of the state’s former auditor on public corruption charges.
The court heard arguments Wednesday in the case of Kathy McGuiness, who was convicted last year on misdemeanor charges of conflict of interest, official misconduct and noncompliance with state procurement rules. A jury acquitted her on felony charges of theft and witness intimidation.
The conflict of interest charge involved the hiring of McGuiness’ daughter as a part-time employee in the auditor’s office. McGuinness also was convicted of structuring payments to a consulting firm to avoid having to get them approved by the state Division of Accounting. The structuring and conflict of interest convictions laid the foundation for jurors to also find McGuiness guilty of official misconduct. The trial judge later threw out the contract structuring conviction.
The trial marked the first time in Delaware history that a sitting statewide elected official was convicted on criminal charges.
An attorney for McGuiness argued Wednesday that she is the victim of a biased investigation, prosecutorial misconduct, and erroneous rulings by the judge.
“The trial that led to the conviction was profoundly unfair and unconstitutional,” said attorney Steve Wood.
Wood argued that prosecutors violated McGuiness’ rights by failing to review and timely disclose to the defense more than half a million electronic files seized during a search of her office in September 2021. Prosecutors did not provide the files until April 2022, just six weeks before trial, which Wood said was not enough time for the defense to review them. Wood said the files were later found to include hundreds of emails to and from McGuiness’ daughter that refute allegations that she was being paid for a “no-show” job and granted special privileges.
Wood also argued that trial judge William Carpenter Jr. improperly vouched for the credibility of the state’s chief investigator.
Under cross-examination, investigator Franklin Robinson struggled to answer questions about repeatedly making false statements in a search warrant affidavit and to a grand jury, and omitting information that could have cast McGuiness in a more favorable light. Wood also questioned Robinson about falsely telling witnesses he was interviewing that he was doing a general review “throughout state government” regarding part-time workers whose employment began or ended during the coronavirus pandemic. In reality, Robinson was conducting a criminal investigation and was looking only at employees in the auditor’s office.
After prosecutors objected to Wood’s grilling of Robinson, Carpenter chastised Wood in front of the jury, saying that false statements made by law enforcement officers while conducting interviews are “an investigative technique.”
“But to imply that because this is false, he is lying. That’s simply unfair, Mr. Wood,” Carpenter said before telling Wood to “move on.”
For the court to affirm that an intentionally false statement made by a police officer is not a lie would be troublesome, Wood told the justices. “In this day and age in our national life, that argument is untenable,” he said.
David McBride, an attorney representing the state, defended actions by the prosecutors and the judge, saying a conflict of interest existed when McGuiness’ daughter was hired and provided special benefits not available at that time to other part-time employees. He also said the defense failed to show any prejudice from the late disclosure of the electronic files, even though the judge rebuked prosecutors for their conduct.
McBride also defended Carpenter’s behavior in shutting down Wood’s cross-examination of Robinson.
“The judge did not say that the investigator wasn’t a liar. He said that it’s not fair, the questions that were being asked,” McBride said. “We don’t concede that that was an error.”