Does the First Amendment Protect Payment for Access?

 As many readers of this blog know, U.S. law on whether (or when) campaign donations can be proscribed by criminal anticorruption statutes is quite complicated, and to some degree unsettled. On the one hand, the Supreme Court has held that campaign contributions are constitutionally protected “speech” under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. On the other hand, U.S. criminal law can and does prohibit campaign donations that are the “quid” in a classic quid pro quo bribery transaction. In other words, it would unconstitutional for the U.S. to prohibit campaign donations to politicians even if such a prohibition is motivated by the generalized worry that politicians might show special solicitude to the interests of their big donors. But it is perfectly constitutional for Congress to prohibit quid pro quo transactions in which a private interest offers a campaign donation as the “quid” in exchange for some “quo.”

It remains an open question, however, what can qualify as the “quo.” Certainly passing legislation, directing federal funding, and securing special regulatory benefits and exceptions would suffice. But what about mere access — an understanding between the donor and elected official that a campaign contribution will get the donor special access to the official? Two recent Supreme Court opinions — Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC — contain language suggesting that it might be unconstitutional for U.S. law to prohibit an explicit quid pro quo agreement in which a politician offers access in exchange for campaign contributions. According to Citizens United, “[i]ngratiation and access . . . are not corruption,” while McCutcheon cautioned that “government regulation may not target the general gratitude a candidate may feel toward those who support him or his allies or the political access such support may afford” (emphasis added).

Despite this suggestive language, the Supreme Court has not yet had to confront head-on the question of whether the First Amendment protects quid pro quo payment-for-access. The closest it came was last year in United States v. McDonnell (discussed on the blog here, here, and here). In that case, Governor McDonnell helped to arrange meetings between businessman Jonnie Williams and government officials, and accepted personal gifts from Mr. Williams in exchange. By a vote of 7-0, the McDonnell Court reversed the governor’s conviction and construed the federal bribery statute at issue not to cover the governor’s conduct.

But this doesn’t resolve the constitutional question. McDonnell turned on the construction of the existing federal anti-bribery statute, which requires that the “quo” be an “official act,” which the Court construed narrowly as excluding provision of mere access. Moreover, McDonnell was not a First Amendment case, as the alleged bribes were not campaign contributions. Nonetheless, the Court did discuss the concept of corruption in a manner reminiscent of its opinions in Citizens United and McCutcheon. According to McDonnell: “[C]onscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time. . . . The Government’s position [that McDonnell violated the law] could cast a pall of potential prosecution over these relationships if [a donor] had given a campaign contribution in the past . . . . Officials might wonder whether they could respond to even the most commonplace requests for assistance, and citizens with legitimate concerns might shrink from participating in democratic discourse.” Furthermore, McCutcheon — which was a First Amendment case — defined the sort of corruption that could justify restrictions on campaign donations as “a direct exchange of an official act for money” (emphasis added), which might imply that, at least in the campaign donation context, McDonnell’s reading of the anti-bribery statute is constitutionally required.

But is that right? Separate from the question of whether Congress should criminalize payment-for-access, and from the question of whether Congress has in fact done so in the existing federal anti-bribery statutes, is the question of whether Congress could criminally proscribe payment-for-access if it wanted to. In other words, is payment-for-access constitutionally protected? Though some of the Supreme Court’s recent language has suggested such a conclusion, I believe that proposition is wrong, for three reasons:

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Corruption and Federal Pensions: A Case for Rewriting the Hiss Act

David Lee, an employee of the Department of Homeland Security, was tasked with investigating a foreign businessman accused of sex trafficking.  Instead of doing his job, however, he did something very different: He solicited and received $13,000 in bribes to report that that the foreign in question was not involved in criminal activity.  This case is not that unusual. In the last ten years, according to a report by the New York Times, immigration enforcement officials have taken over $5 million in bribes. They’ve sold green cards, ignored illegal activity, and even given information to the very drug cartels they are tasked with combating.

Shockingly, however, even after these officials are fired, they remain eligible for federal pensions. This is not unusual, but rather typical: most federal employees convicted of bribery remain eligible for their government pensions.  This was not always the case: The original 1954 version of a statute called the Hiss Act (named for Alger Hiss, a State Department employee who was convicted of passing state secrets to a communist agent) prohibited the payment of a federal pension to a former federal employee who had been convicted of federal law offenses related to bribery and graft, conflict of interest, disloyalty, national defense and national security, and more generally to the exercise of one’s “authority, influence, power, or privileges as an officer or employee of the Government.” In 1961, however, Congress amended the law to prohibit the payment of pensions only for convictions for serious national security-related offenses. The reason for the change was the view that the original version of the Hiss Act went too far, leaving former federal officials (who had already been punished with termination, fines, and imprisonment), as well as their innocent spouses and children, facing the possibility of destitution. The additional punishment supposedly did not fit the crime, unless the crime directly concerned the national security of the United States.

The impulse not to over-punish is commendable, but the 1961 amendment to the Hiss Act was an overcorrection. The law should be amended to find a middle ground between the 1954 and 1961 versions. The federal government should have the authority to at least limit, and occasionally bar, pensions to certain public officials who have been convicted of a corruption-related offenses such as bribery and extortion. The case for doing so is as follows:

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The Right Amount of Legislative Immunity

It many ways, legislative or parliamentary immunity seems an anathema to the fight against public corruption. Legislative immunity shields legislators from prosecution for acts taken within their legislative ambit, sometimes even shielding them when those actions are corrupt. As my earlier post on Senator Menendez hints, even when it seems clear that legislators’ actions are not protected, the very existence of legislative immunity gives legislators room to argue and prolong their court cases – all the while continuing to serve in the legislature. Legislative immunity can undermine public confidence in lawmaking and perpetuate a sense of impunity in public officials.

That said, there is a reason most democracies have some form of legislative immunity: not because individual legislators should be shielded from prosecution, but because the legislature as an institution should be protected from intrusion and second-guessing by prosecutors and the judiciary. Of particular concern are politically-motivated prosecutions brought by the government against legislators from opposing parties. Turkey provides a recent example. This past May, Turkey’s legislature voted to lift parliamentary immunity and pave the way for prosecution of pro-Kurdish legislators accused of supporting terror (see here). While concerns about terrorism are very real in Turkey, this move falls clearly within President Erdogan’s broader efforts to consolidate power and move away from democratic rule.

Ultimately, both concerns about impunity and legislative independence are valid. The question is how to strike the appropriate balance. Legislative immunity can take many forms, and there is likely no single “best” model. The most appropriate form of legislative immunity will likely depend instead on a range of contextual factors. Here I consider several critical ones:

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When Should We Put Anticorruption Agencies in the Constitution?

To fight corruption more effectively, many countries have created specialized government institutions that focus primarily on corruption issues. Most common are specialized anticorruption agencies (ACAs) with investigative and/or prosecutorial functions, although some countries have also created specialized anticorruption courts, special coordinating bodies, or other entities. This trend has generated a great deal of debate, both about whether to create such specialized bodies at all and about how they should be designed (for example, whether ACAs should combine prosecutorial and investigative power). Absent from much of this debate, however, is a discussion of the means countries should use to create these specialized bodies—in particular, whether these specialized anticorruption bodies should be enshrined in the nation’s constitution, or should be created by ordinary law.

Anticorruption bodies vary quite a bit on the extent to which they are constitutionalized. Most existing ACAs and other anticorruption institutions—including many considered highly successful—are not mandated by the constitution. For example, Indonesia’s anticorruption agency (the KPK) and its anticorruption courts (the Tipikor courts) were created by ordinary legislation, as was Belgium’s anticorruption investigation body and Spain’s anticorruption prosecutor’s office. However, in other countries specialized anticorruption bodies are explicitly established (or required) by the constitution. For example, the Philippines’ anticorruption court, the Sandiganbayan, is enshrined in that country’s 1987 constitution. Indeed, the trend (if one can be discerned) seems to be in the direction of constitutionalization. Tunisia’s new constitution, adopted in 2014, includes a specialized anticorruption investigation body. Egypt’s 2014 constitution similarly includes a specialized anticorruption prosecutor. Mexico’s 2015 amendments constitutionalized three types of anticorruption agencies (investigative, prosecutorial, and judicial), as well as a coordinating body.

But should these agencies be constitutionalized? And if so, when? Continue reading

#Ley3de3 and the Power of Mexican Civil Society

As I discussed in an earlier post, Mexico enacted a series of constitutional anticorruption reforms last spring. I praised those reforms for their comprehensiveness and their potential to resolve problems of corruption at the state and local levels. However, I also noted that they required secondary enabling laws to actually go into effect. Until recently, the likelihood of enacting those laws on time looked slim, as the late-May deadline approached with considerable foot-dragging by the legislature. But Mexican civil society has risen to the challenge in an exciting way. Thanks to a 2012 constitutional reform that allows citizens to introduce bills to the legislature with 120,000 signatures (or 1.3 percent the voter rolls), an anticorruption bill has now been delivered to and is being debated by the Mexican Senate.

Called Ley 3de3, the initiative is an extraordinary example of civic engagement. Leading civil society groups have spearheaded the campaign, and universities and even for-profit businesses have gotten involved (see here and here). When the law was first delivered to the Mexican Senate on March 17th, it had over 300,000 signatures. A second installment of almost 325,000 more signatures was delivered nineteen days later. The legislation works to fill a number of important holes in the Mexican anticorruption landscape. For example, it requires public servants to disclose their assets, private interests, and tax returns (the 3-out-of-3 which gives the law its title) and proposes protection for whistleblowers who report corruption. The law faces a number of obstacles before it is passed, and other laws will be necessary to fully enact the National Anticorruption System promised by the constitutional reforms. However, the Ley 3de3 effort should be cause for, at least tempered, optimism. Continue reading

Senator Menendez and the Great Speech or Debate Clause

The corruption allegations against Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) have the hallmarks of a classic Capitol Hill scandal. The Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section indicted Senator Menendez last spring for allegedly using his official position to promote the business and personal interests of his friend and long-time donor Dr. Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist. According to the allegations, Dr. Melgen provided Senator Menendez with lavish trips to Florida, Paris, and the Dominican Republic, as well as political contributions to allies. In exchange, Senator Menendez allegedly interceded with immigration authorities to help Dr. Melgen secure visas for his foreign girlfriends, sought to influence an administrative enforcement action against Dr. Melgen for $8.9 million in Medicare overbilling, and pressured the Executive Branch to intervene in Dr. Melgen’s contract dispute with the Dominican Republic.

Unsurprisingly, this legal fight has been ugly. Senator Menendez and his legal team have accused the prosecution of gross misconduct in the grand jury investigation, of “misapplying” and “making up from whole cloth” certain legal standards, and “disparaging defendants’ motives and defense counsel.” The prosecution, for its part, has accused the Senator’s camp of deploying “vituperation” instead of substance and of advancing “false factual premises and specious legal reasoning.”

The latest iteration of this saga is taking place at the appellate level, where the Third Circuit recently heard oral arguments on Senator Menendez’s assertion that his actions on behalf of Dr. Melgen are entitled to immunity under the U.S. Constitution’s “Speech or Debate” Clause (an argument the trial court rejected). The Speech or Debate Clause provides that “for any Speech or Debate in either House, [Members of Congress] shall not be questioned in any other Place.” Like many legislative immunity clauses in other countries, the Speech or Debate Clause was born in part out of a desire to protect legislators from political prosecution for the views they express when legislating, and to encourage free and informed debate.

U.S. courts have interpreted the Clause quite generously over the years, reading it to cover not only actual speeches and debates, but also other “legislative acts” (such as voting on legislation, authorizing an investigation by a Congressional Committee, preparing reports, and holding hearings). Senator Menendez, however, argues for an even broader understanding of the conduct that qualifies as “legislative acts” shielded by the Clause. These arguments should be rejected. Not only are Senator Menendez’s claims legally dubious under existing precedents, but, if accepted, they would also hamstring the prosecution of classic quid pro quo corruption.

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Sins of the Father: Keiko Fujimori’s Presidential Candidacy in Peru

Dynastic politics are still strong across the globe. Hillary Clinton seems poised to follow in her husband’s footsteps and become President of the United States. Another Trudeau was elected Prime Minister of Canada last October. Chinese President Xi Jinping is a so-called “princeling.” And, as has been well documented on this blog, dynasties rule the political scene in the Philippines.

The front runner in Peru’s presidential election also has a familiar last name: Fujimori. Congresswoman Keiko Fujimori is the daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori, who held office from 1990 to 2000. Ex-President Fujimori’s regime did some good in Peru; for example, his liberal economic reforms helped to launch a period of economic growth. But his regime was also brutal and plagued by corruption. President Fujimori is in prison today, serving a 25 year sentence for human rights violations. He’s also been convicted of a number of corruption-related offenses, including using his spy chief to bribe journalists, business people, judges, and opposition politicians.

Despite this legacy of corruption, and the fact that Peruvians view corruption as one of the most serious problems facing the country, Congresswoman Fujimori sits atop the polls of the 2016 election. Is this a problem? How much should Peruvian voters consider Alberto Fujimori’s corruption and human rights abuses when they vote next month? And to what extent should the Fujimori family legacy affect their assessment of Congresswoman Fujimori’s approach to corruption?

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