Can A “Fudgy” Adverb Save Trump From Impeachment?

For weeks President Trump’s defenders have claimed he did not demand Ukraine investigate the Bidens in return for approving the delivery of weapons to Ukraine. In legal terms, the argument was that there was no exchange of one for the other, no quid pro quo, the cornerstone of the crime of bribery.  That defense has now collapsed (here and here). The evidence that Trump sought a “quo,” a personal favor in the form of an investigation of the Bidens, in return for a “quid,” weapons, is overwhelming (here).  His defenders have thus now fallen back to a secondary defensive line: there was a quid pro quo but it was merely an “inappropriate” one. It was not, defenders insist, an impeachable quid pro quo.

Whether this new defense will carry the day remains to be seen.  No American president has ever faced impeachment for soliciting a bribe.  There is thus no standard jurors in a Trump impeachment trial, the 100 members of the United States Senate, can consult in deciding whether Trump’s attempt to use the power of the presidency to obtain a personal benefit is impeachable. But as Senators construct a standard, they might consider the one a 12-person jury of lay people in a criminal trial must use when a public servant is accused of soliciting a bribe. Continue reading

Will Congressional Republicans Hold Trump to the Standard to Which They Are Held?

It is no surprise House and Senate Republicans are finding it difficult to defend President Trump’s mixing political business with official business in his dealings with Ukraine. From the day they are elected, members are warned to keep the two separate lest they run afoul of the federal bribery law.  Nor should it be a surprise that President Trump would mix the two, for by his own admission, as a New York City real estate developer he frequently did.

House and Senate Ethics Committee Manuals both tell members “the federal bribery statute makes it a crime for a public official . . .  to ask for . . .  gifts, money, or other things of value in connection with the performance of official duties.”  The “connection” between the request and the duty performed need not be an explicit quid pro quo — contrary to what some Trump defenders say.  Were that the standard, as Justice Kennedy explained in a landmark case, an official could easily escape sanction by resort to “knowing winks and nods.” Continue reading

Memorandum of Conversation Between Presidents Trump and Zelensky UPDATED

America has unfortunately plunged into what is likely to be a long and divisive debate about corruption. Media reports of a conversation President Trump had July 25 with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have swirled since allegations surfaced that President Trump had there asked President Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Biden for corruption.  In the hopes of ending speculation about what he said, earlier today President Trump released a memorandum recounting the call.  [Update: The controversy leading to release of the memorandum was sparked by reports an intelligence professional had filed a whistleblower complaint concerning President Trump and Ukraine.  That complaint, released the morning of September 2, is here].

Unfortunately, the release is likely only to fuel ever more nasty, partisan debate. One controversy certain to arise is the memorandum’s accuracy.  It is not a verbatim transcript of what the leaders said, a transcription of an audio recording of the call.  Rather, it represents what one or more staff huriedley scribbled down while the two spoke; later others reviewed it.  Did someone “scrub” more incriminating comments from the memo before its release?  Is there a better record of the call?  Will the person or persons who actually listened to the call come forward to testify to its accuracy?  Or contest the accuracy?

A more critical point of contention is whether what President Trump said during the call is on its face a crime under American law.  President Trump clearly asked President Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Biden for criminal activity.  The Federal Election Campaign Act makes it a crime for presidential candidates to receive contributions, defined as “anything of value,” from foreign citizens or governments. President Trump is a candidate for president in the 2020 election as is the former Vice President. Had Ukraine actually initiated an investigation of the Vice President, would that have been something of value under the election law?  If it would have been, was President Trump’s solicitation of such a contribution a violation of the law?  Or any other U.S. laws?

Is the fact that Mr. Biden is seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination relevant to the inquiry?  That, were he to be the Democratic nominee, current polls show him decisively defeating President Trump?

Some reports allege President Trump personally held up critical military and economic assistance to the government of Ukraine, only releasing it under Congressional pressure.  That will surely be the bitterest bone of contention, for if he used a denial or delay in providing aid as leverage to force Ukraine to open an investigation, that would constitute attempted bribery under American law and thus strong grounds for impeachment and removal from office.

Was there such a threat?  As students of U.S. bribery law know, it need not have been overt; “a wink and a nod” suffices.   Expect a great deal of argument over “winks and nods,” with partisans seeing none opponents seeing them everywhere

The only bright spot in this very dismal chapter in American history is release of  memorandum of conversation.  It provides at least some uncontested facts upon which partisans can build their cases.  For those who have yet to read it, here it is Memorandum telephone conversation between Presidents Trump and Zelenskyy

“Passive Bribery”: Not a Trivial Abuse of Language At All

Yesterday Matthew wrote that using “passive bribery” to describe a public official’s acceptance of a bribe was an abuse of language.  His complaint: “passive” suggests a bribe taker is less culpable than a bribe payer: “’Passive bribery,’” he explained, “sounds less bad, and less serious, than ‘active bribery,’ even though most people would view the two parties to the bribe transaction as equally culpable.”

Calling bribe-taking “passive” is indeed an abuse of language. But it is not, as Matthew’s headline reads, “An Almost Entirely Trivial Complaint.” Nor is the abuse “No big deal” as he writes in the post.  To see why, consider two different “passive bribery” scenarios. Continue reading

An Almost Entirely Trivial Complaint About Terminology: Can We Please Retire the Term “Passive Bribery”?

Alright, alright, I know there’s so much important and serious going on in the anticorruption world, and the world in general, that I have to apologize right up front for the topic of this post, which is has virtually no importance to anything substantive. But I’ll post about it anyway, partly because it’s been bugging me, partly because right now I’m too burnt out to take up anything more weighty. Here’s today’s trivial terminological complaint:

The term “passive bribery.”

I don’t know when or how this happened, but in large segments of the anticorruption community, it’s become standard to refer to the act of requesting, demanding, or taking a bribe as “passive bribery”—which is contrasted with “active bribery,” defined as the act of promising, offering, or giving a bribe. This terminology has become so standard that it appears repeatedly in glossaries prepared by international organizations (see, for example, here and here) and leading anticorruption NGOs (see, for example, here and here), though to the best of my knowledge these terms aren’t actually used in any legal codes, nor in the UN Convention Against Corruption.

The problem is that describing the act of taking (or demanding) a bribe as “passive bribery” is both an abuse of language and potentially confusing or misleading. Continue reading

The Stream of Benefits Theory of Bribery Doesn’t Criminalize Ordinary Politics

Bribery of a public official can take one of at least two forms. In the most straightforward case, a public official accepts a one-off bribe in exchange for a particular official act. This kind of one-to-one exchange is illustrated by a recent case out of Puerto Rico, in which a territorial senator agreed to a direct trade: he would support legislation favorable to a local businessman’s security company, and in return he would receive an all-expenses-paid trip to Las Vegas. Things aren’t always so neat, however. Sometimes bribery involves a series of gifts to a public official in exchange for a series of official acts, and seldom do these gifts and official acts line up in a one-to-one fashion. An example of this kind of bribery can be seen in a recent case out of Texas, where, over an extended period of time, a local developer provided a town mayor cash, home renovations, hotel stays, airline upgrades, and even employment, and the mayor repeatedly voted for zoning changes that ultimately allowed a developer to build apartments.

Anticorruption officials in the United States prosecute the latter form of bribery under a “stream of benefits” theory of liability. Rather than requiring prosecutors to demonstrate tit-for-tat trades—in which a specific “thing of value” is offered or exchanged for a specific official act—under the stream of benefits theory unlawful bribery has also occurred when the prosecution can show a “course of conduct of favors and gifts flowing to a public official in exchange for a pattern of official actions favorable to the donor.” Some courts and commentators have described the idea as the briber regularly paying the public official to keep her “on retainer” with the expectation that she will help the briber out as opportunities arise. The stream of benefits theory recognizes that most bribes aren’t one-off trades of a thing of value for a particular official act. Instead, bribery often takes place in the context of a long-term, multifaceted relationship where there’s a general understanding along the lines of “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” Where gifts flow regularly to the official and the official occasionally acts for the benefit of the gift-giver, it would be difficult for prosecutors to prove that any particular gift instigated a particular official act. But as then-Judge Sonia Sotomayor once reasoned: “[A] reading of the [bribery] statute that excluded such schemes would legalize some of the most pervasive and entrenched corruption, and cannot be what Congress intended.” Accordingly, the stream of benefits theory has been approved by every federal circuit court that has ruled on the issue.

Yet despite the stream of benefits theory’s intuitive appeal, it has recently come under attack. Most prominently, a federal judge threatened to derail the trial of U.S. Senator Robert Menendez before it began by questioning the theory’s continued validity in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in the McDonnell case (which, as explained in more detail below, adopted a strict interpretation of what constitutes an “official act” under the U.S. bribery statute). Although the judge in the Menendez case ultimately determined that the stream of benefits theory was still good law, many commentators aren’t so sure. The Cato Institute, for one, speculates that McDonnell’s strict reading of the bribery statute requires the identification of a specific official act to be performed, rather than accepting as adequate the promise of future, undefined official acts in the briber’s favor. Others, like Professor Randall Eliason, argue that the Supreme Court already (albeit implicitly) rejected the stream of benefits theory on those grounds in a 1999 case called Sun-Diamond.

These attacks reflect a broader policy concern: fear that overly broad bribery statutes criminalize ordinary politics. Professor Albert Alschuler, for instance, asserts that the “principal danger” with the stream of benefits theory is that it “invites slippage” from a “quid pro quo requirement” to a “favoritism” standard. Favoritism, he argues, is endemic in politics––a politician will naturally favor allies and stakeholders who have supported him politically (and financially). Criminalizing favoritism is akin to criminalizing innocent political conduct, which, in turn, has far-reaching secondary effects, such as deterring good people from government service and giving prosecutors too much power to enforce the law selectively. The Supreme Court’s decision in McDonnell, though technically on a different issue, also expressed worries about how a “boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute” could wind up criminalizing ordinary politics.

These fears are overblown. As other commentators have persuasively argued, the stream of benefits theory remains viable, and has not been expressly or implicitly repudiated by the Supreme Court in McDonnell, Sun-Diamond, or elsewhere. (See, for example, here and, on this blog, here.) I agree, but my main argument here concerns the detractors’ underlying policy concern. Put simply: the stream of benefits theory doesn’t criminalize ordinary politics.

Continue reading

Why the WTO Should Tackle Border Corruption

When a state systematically fails to suppress bribery in its customs service, should that be an actionable violation of international trade law? More broadly, to what extent do anticorruption provisions have a place in the law of the World Trade Organization? In a 2014 post on this blog, Colette van der Ven squarely addressed these questions and concluded that the answer is no: the WTO, in her view, is not well suited to handling complaints of corruption.

I disagree with Colette’s well-reasoned analysis. While she is right to point out substantial challenges to grappling with anticorruption through the WTO, these challenges are surmountable—and the importance of a WTO remedy counsels in favor of surmounting them. Continue reading