The Virginia Court of Appeals building in downtown Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
The Virginia Court of Appeals upheld a bribery conviction Tuesday for a Southside Virginia convenience store operator who offered the town of La Crosse a $500 monthly donation in exchange for officials’ support for gaming machines at his business.
Businessman Mamdoh Abouemara was appealing his 2021 guilty conviction in Mecklenburg County, arguing prosecutors hadn’t sufficiently proven he acted with corrupt intent, partly because he made the offer to the town openly.
The appellate court rejected that argument in a 2-1 opinion, ruling nothing in Virginia law requires quid pro quos to be offered “secretly or surreptitiously” in order to qualify as an illegal bribe.
“If that were true, the most unseemly, open and notorious bribes offered to public servants in plain view would be immunized from prosecution,” Judge Stuart A. Raphael wrote for the majority.
The court opinion appears to center on so-called skill machines, the slots-like devices installed in convenience stores throughout Virginia despite questions about their legality. However, the court opinion only refers to “gaming machines,” and local officials could not confirm Tuesday that the devices at issue were skill machines. The events in the bribery case occurred before the General Assembly voted to ban skill machines in 2021. That ban remains in limbo while the skill-game industry continues to fight the law in court.
Abouemara was sentenced to one year of probation, with a five-year term of incarceration fully suspended.
Kevin Calhoun, one of Abouemera’s attorneys, said the legal battle would continue.
“We are disappointed by the Court of Appeals’ ruling today, but we intend to appeal the case to the Supreme Court of Virginia and to vigorously fight for our client’s conviction to be overturned,” Calhoun said.
The events that led to Abouemara’s legal trouble began when local law enforcement started investigating his store after noticing “many cars” in the parking lot late at night when the store was supposed to be closed, according to court records. In early October of 2019, Abouemara went to the La Crosse town manager’s office to discuss making donations to the town in exchange for a letter supporting the gaming machines.
The town manager at the time, F.A. Hendrick, told Abouemara the town couldn’t take donations directly, but donations could be made to a nonprofit called “Friends of La Crosse” that focuses on civic improvement.
Hendrick said he would take Abouemara’s offer to the town council, and the matter was taken up at a Dec. 9 meeting. The council responded with a resounding no. According to the court opinion, a “garbled” recording of that meeting shows council members laughing after rejecting the proposal.
Abouemara also wrote the town a $200 check, which town officials did not accept. Hendrick had originally testified at trial that the check came after the December council meeting, but the check was dated Oct. 26 and Hendrick later acknowledged he might have received the check before the meeting.
Abouemara was charged with two felony counts of bribery, according to the appellate opinion, but the count related to the attempted $200 donation was dismissed.
The appellate court rejected the defense’s claim that the attempted $200 donation after the town rejected his original proposal shows “the original offer was not a bribe.”
“For instance, his paying $200 once, rather than $500 every month, could well have signaled punishment for the council’s failure to accept the bribe,” Raphael wrote in the majority opinion. “Or the donation could have been a fallback effort to curry favor. Or an attempt to cover up the crime.”
On Dec. 15, 2019, according to court records, law enforcement executed a search warrant at Abouemara’s business and “seized several gaming machines.”
Appeals Court Judge Vernida R. Chaney disagreed with the opinion, writing in a dissent that the majority was taking an overly broad reading of the bribery law by treating the possibility of an informal letter as an official act by the public servants allegedly being improperly propositioned. Her dissent notes that both the donation offer and the request for a letter of support would have been legal on their own, and the mere fact they were linked together doesn’t prove the “requisite intent for bribery.”
“To construe the bribery statute as criminalizing any proposed quid pro quo would absurdly criminalize offers of monetary donations to benefit the community in return for a letter of thanks or a birthday greeting to the community’s oldest citizen,” Chaney wrote. “By construing the bribery statute to criminalize any proposal in which there is an exchange of benefits between the town and a private individual, the majority converts the lawful act of proposing a contract to the town council into a criminal act.”
The majority, however, said the offer became a “completed crime once communicated to the town council.”
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