Thoughts from the Menendez Trial: Preventing Corruption from the Start

Last fall’s corruption trial of U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) ended rather anticlimactically, with the presiding judge declaring a mistrial after the jury announced that it couldn’t reach a decision, and the Department of Justice eventually deciding not to retry him. Senator Menendez had been accused of taking donations and gifts from Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen in exchange for advocating for visas for Melgen’s foreign girlfriends, the award of a government contract, and the resolution of a Medicare billing dispute. Plenty of digital ink has already been spilled on the broader implications of the Menendez case for other bribery prosecutions (on this blog here, and elsewhere here and here).

But putting aside the specifics of the case, what caught my eye about the allegations against Senator Menendez was a background feature of U.S. law that seems to have gone largely undiscussed: It’s perfectly legal (and normal) for non-constituents to contribute to political candidates. In other words, even if you are barred from voting for a candidate because you live outside that candidate’s district, you can still express your support by pulling out your checkbook. That lack of constraint on donations seems to invite the very kind of corruption the government alleged in the Menendez case, because it allows a wealthy donor to find and purchase his or her own “personal United States senator.”

I’m certainly not the first person to voice the concern that allowing non-residents to contribute to political candidates may facilitate corruption. Two states—Alaska and Hawaii—have recognized the risk posed by allowing non-residents to contribute to political candidates. They’ve responded by limiting those donations. But in the Lower 48 and in all federal elections, there are no differential limits on contributions from people residing outside the state, so long as they are American citizens or permanent residents. (Alaska’s law is currently facing a First Amendment challenge from an aspiring donor whose gift was returned because the candidate he supported had already reached the out-of-state contribution limits. A federal judge upheld the law as a “closely drawn” effort by the state to prevent “quid pro quo corruption or its appearance,” but the would-be donor has appealed.) Putting aside the constitutional defenses of the sorts of laws that Alaska and Hawaii have adopted (which you can find in the amicus briefs filed in the Alaska case here, here, and here), there are strong policy reasons for limiting contributions by people living outside a state or district—not least because such limits, as the judge in the Alaska case noted, can be a useful tool for preventing corruption or its appearance:

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Corruption’s Gendered Double Standard

On November 8, 2016 the United States almost elected Hillary Clinton as its first female president. But, if Donald Trump and many of his supporters were to be believed, Secretary Clinton was also one of the most corrupt politicians of all time. This argument appears to have swayed many American voters, who ended up electing Donald Trump (who might actually be the most corrupt person recently elected to the presidency, see here, here, and here). That Trump’s unprecedented accusations of corruption were leveled against the first female presidential candidate nominated by a major political party was not a coincidence.

A great deal of commentary has considered whether women (and especially female politicians and public officials) behave less corruptly than men. (For some prior discussion on this blog, see here.) But I’d like to focus on a different question: Are female politicians accused of corruption treated differently—and judged more harshly—than male politicians? Existing research suggests that they are, which in turn may explain both why allegations of corruption can be more damaging to female politicians, and why female public officials are on the whole less corrupt. Continue reading

Is it Legal in the U.S. To Buy Delegate Votes at Party Nominating Conventions?

As bizarre as the U.S. presidential campaign has been so far, it may get even more so this summer. There is a chance (although maybe not a probability) that the Republican Party will have its first contested convention since 1976. If no candidate has a majority of delegates on the first ballot, then many “bound delegates” can switch their vote to any candidate for the nomination (here is a brief primer on how a contested convention might work). If that happens, might some candidates (or, more likely, their surrogates) actually try to buy delegates’ votes—offering them cash or other crude material inducements in exchange for support? Donald Trump recently told a friend—apparently (and hopefully) in jest—he would “buy the delegates” if he did not obtain a majority in the primaries.

Such conduct would certainly be corrupt in the traditional sense. Believe it or not, however, such vote buying might not be against the law. Buying votes in a federal election is certainly illegal. But, as a recent Bloomberg article explained, “There is nothing in the [Republican National Committee]’s rules that prohibits delegates from cutting a deal for their votes, and lawyers say it is unlikely that federal anti-corruption laws would apply to convention horse-trading. (It is not clear that even explicitly selling one’s vote for cash would be illegal.)” Similarly, when respected former Republican National Committee counsel Ben Ginsberg was recently asked whether an unbound delegate to the convention could legally accept a suitcase full of cash in exchange for a vote for a candidate for the nomination, Ginsberg replied, “That is a great legal question that I’m not sure there’s an answer [to]. It’s not official [] action.” (Ginsberg did, however, emphasize that most lawyers “would not want to be defending somebody who just took a suitcase of cash for a vote at a convention.”)

So while outright vote buying at a contested convention is not exactly likely, it’s a serious enough concern to make it worthwhile to assess the risks, the current law that might apply, and the steps that Congress and the political parties can take to do something about this concern. Continue reading

Is Corruption Destroying American Democracy? Zephyr Teachout’s Corruption in America

Fordham University Law Professor Zephyr Teachout earned a place of distinction among anticorruption activists for making the fight against corruption the centerpiece of her spirited campaign to oust the incumbent in New York’s September 9 gubernatorial primary (as well as a good deal of attention on this blog, click here and here).  Her effort also deserves special recognition in academia: surely no other professor has produced evidence to undercut her own academic work so fast as Professor Teachout. Appearing days before the primary, her Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin to Citizens United contends that large private donations to political candidates so favor candidates supported by the wealthy that the future of American democracy is at risk.  Yet while preliminary figures suggest the well-known, well-organized incumbent outspent her by somewhere between 40 to 50 to 1, she did surprisingly well, polling 180,336 votes to the incumbent’s 327,150.  If money so dominates American political campaigns, it is hard to see why Professor Teachout got so far with so little. Of course, she did lose the election.  More to the point, even if she had won, her claim that money is overwhelming American elections cannot be dis-proven by a single example.  It may be that her race was an outlier and that most of the time, money does talk.  So what does the accumulated research on the influence of money on American elections show? Continue reading