When Are Quid Pro Quo Campaign Contributions Corrupt? When Are They an Embodiment of Democracy?

Recent developments in the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court have been dramatic, to say the least. As I type this, most of the discussion of Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination has focused on allegations that, while in high school, he and a friend sexually assaulted a 15-year-old girl. Events are moving so fast that by the time this post is published (which will likely be a few days from now, since I typically write these things in advance), there may be more new developments. But I actually don’t want to talk here about the issues that have (rightly) taken center stage with respect to this nomination. Rather, I want to discuss another controversy connected to Kavanaugh’s nomination that had been getting a fair bit of press until it was overshadowed by the disclosure of the sexual assault allegations. That controversy concerned a coalition of civil society groups in Maine that used crowdfunding to raise over $1 million, and declared that they would donate these funds to the opponent of Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine the next time she is up for re-election (in 2020) if she votes to confirm Judge Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Is that corrupt? Senator Collins and several of her political allies think so. Senator Collins denounced the campaign as “bribery or extortion.” Other commenters agreed (see here and here). And a group called the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT) wrote to the Department of Justice (DOJ) to call for an investigation of the groups that organized the crowdfunding campaign, alleging that conditioning a campaign donation to Senator Collins’ opponent on whether Senator Collins supports Kavanaugh is “an illegal attempt to influence an elected official’s specific vote” in violation of 18 U.S.C. §201(b), the section of the federal bribery statute that makes it a crime to “directly or indirectly, corruptly … offer[] … anything of value to any public official … with intent to influence any official act.” It’s perhaps worth noting that although FACT describes itself as a “non-partisan ethics watchdog,” its ethics complaints are targeted overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) at Democrats, and it is funded entirely by an anonymous trust fund (a so-called “pass-through”) favored by ultra-wealthy conservative donors, including Charles Koch. So reasonable people might take FACT’s own conclusions with more than a grain of salt. Still, though, the allegation that the grassroots campaign targeting Collins is engaging in illegal “bribery,” though in my view wrong as a matter of both law and ethics, is worth taking seriously, because it highlights some of the fundamental problems with the regulation of campaign finance in the United States—in particular the use of a “corruption” paradigm to address what’s mainly a political equality problem. Continue reading

India’s Political Party Finance Reform Falls Short of Ensuring Complete Transparency—But Is Still a Step in the Right Direction

On March 1, 2018, India began its latest effort to clean up the financing of political parties and elections. This efforts involves the sale of so-called “electoral bonds” at select state banks across the country. The term “electoral bonds” is a misnomer, for these “bonds” are not linked to elections, nor do they involve paying back a loan or yielding interest. Rather, these instruments are simply a new means to facilitate financial donations to political parties, and are intended to displace the undocumented cash transfers that form the lifeblood of Indian politics. As India’s Finance Minister argued, this cash-based system causes two problems: First, “unclean money from unidentifiable sources” facilitates corruption and money laundering. Second, the reliance on cash allows parties to underreport both their budgets and spending. These concerns led the government last year to reduce the limit on anonymous cash donations from $300 to $30. Electoral bonds intend to further disrupt the system and achieve at least some increases in transparency of political spending.

Announcement of the new system has generated significant commentary, with the few admirers crowded out by the numerous detractors (see, for example, here, here, and here). The main focus of criticism is the new scheme’s guarantee of donor anonymity: Electoral bonds will carry no name and nobody, other than the bank and donor, can know who made the donation unless the donor willingly discloses her identity. The government has defended the anonymity guarantee as a way to prevent reprisals against donors, but critics understandably argue that the lack of transparency means that much political financing will continue to come from “unidentifiable sources,” allowing big business to keep lobbing money in exchange for policy favors while the public remains in the dark. (Moreover, the government’s emphasis on fear of reprisals as the rationale for anonymity suggests the government is unduly concerned with protecting the only class of donors for whom this would be a significant concern, namely large capitalists.) The electoral bond scheme has thus been painted as a move that potentially strengthens the crony capitalism responsible for India’s dire economic situation.

This strong negative reaction to the electoral bond scheme is, in my view, overwrought. True, the new policy does not solve the deep and serious problems with political finance in India. But it does have some notable advantages over status quo. Additionally, critics of the electoral bond system sometimes seem to treat donor transparency as an unalloyed good, when in fact donor transparency may have some drawbacks as well (even if one doesn’t take too seriously the government’s official line on political reprisals). Let me elaborate on each of these points: Continue reading

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:

Continue reading

Guest Post: How District Attorneys Can Avoid Conflicts of Interest in Campaign Fundraising

Jennifer Rodgers, Executive Director of the Columbia University Law School’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI), and Izaak Bruce, CAPI Research Fellow, contribute the following guest post:

Last fall, New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance received quite a bit of negative press for his handling of potential cases involving some high-profile potential defendants. In one case, Vance declined to bring sexual assault charges in 2015 against Harvey Weinstein despite a detailed victim account. In another case, back in 2012, Vance ultimately decided not to criminally charge members of the Trump family for making false and misleading statements to promote one of their real estate ventures, again despite what on the surface appeared to be credible evidence of wrongdoing. Of course, prosecutors have to make difficult judgment calls all the time about what cases to bring, often based on information that outsiders do not have access to and/or are not in a good position to judge. But what made these cases so troublesome to many was the suggestion or insinuation of improper influence. The New York County DA is an elected position, and in both the Weinstein case and the Trump case, the attorneys who successfully convinced Vance not to bring charges also made hefty donations to Vance’s reelection campaign.

Vance and his supporters insist that there was no impropriety, let alone a quid pro quo, and rightly point out that DAs raise substantial campaign contributions from many attorneys. But the reports were nonetheless deeply troubling, not least because these incidents evince a more general problem. In a couple of cases, DAs have been convicted for accepting campaign contributions as bribes in exchange for favorable defendant outcomes; much more common, however, is the appearance of impropriety caused by campaign donations from individuals involved in cases before the district attorney’s office; these are problematic even if no underlying crime is proved. And of course there is always the possibility of unconscious bias when a DA makes decisions about criminal cases that involve a campaign donor, even if the DA believes his or her decision making is unaffected. Yet despite these obvious problems, there are very few legal limits on donations by individuals to district attorneys, either in New York or elsewhere. In New York, for example, campaign contributors can give a DA candidate up to the maximum amount (almost $50,000 in New York County) with no regard for whether those contributions might lead to a conflict of interest or an unconscious bias on the part of the district attorney. And there is virtually no guidance for DAs on how to handle these potential or apparent conflict-of interest issues.

To help address this problem, my organization, the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI) at Columbia Law School, recently released a report on DA fundraising practices. DA Vance, to his credit, specifically requested this review, which included an examination of his own campaign fundraising practices. In conducting its review, CAPI considered the donation acceptance policies of DA Vance’s campaign, and analyzed contributions to his campaigns over his three election cycles, paying particular attention to contributions from attorneys. CAPI conducted research into applicable laws, regulations, and guidance for DAs, and lawyers generally, in this area, and interviewed numerous stakeholders on the topic, including DAs, election regulators, good governance groups, and legal ethics experts, to learn from their experiences and solicit their views. After conducting this review, the report offered seven recommendations for DAs to follow to avoid actual and potential conflicts of interest and biases. While these recommendations are geared to DAs in New York, they are instructive for elected prosecutors all over the United States: Continue reading

Is It a Crime To Promise To Support a Legislator Who Votes the Way You Want?

Last March, while President Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan were trying—ultimately unsuccessfully—to muster enough votes for the first version of their proposed Obamacare replacement, the American Health Care Act (AHCA), the Koch brothers’ political organizations announced that they would set up a fund to provide substantial campaign support to all Republicans who voted against the AHCA (which the Koch brothers opposed on the grounds that it didn’t go far enough in repealing the health insurance expansions brought about by the Obamacare). Stripped to its essence, the Koch brothers said to Republican House Representatives: “If you vote the way we want on this bill, we’ll donate (more) money to your campaigns; if you don’t, we won’t.”

Was that offer a violation of the federal anti-bribery statute? In a provocative essay, Louisiana State University Law Professor Ken Levy says yes, it was. Professor Levy reasons as follows: The anti-bribery statute, codified at 18 USC § 201(b), prohibits any person from “giv[ing], offer[ing] or promis[ing] anything of value to any public official … with intent to influence any official act.” The Koch brothers certainly “offered” or “promised” campaign donations, and campaign donations indubitably count as a “thing of value.” Moreover, the Koch brothers made this promise in order to influence a vote in the legislature, clearly an official act. Moreover, as Professor Levy points out, although many people seem to think that the Supreme Court has ruled that providing campaign donations in exchange for votes is constitutionally protected, in fact the Court has held the opposite: promising campaign donations in exchange for an “official act” does qualify as an unlawful bribe, so long as there’s a quid pro quo; in the absence of a quid pro quo, Congress’s power to regulate campaign donations or expenditures is more limited. Thus, all the elements of a §201(b) violation are present, and at least in principle, the Koch brothers could be prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to a prison term of up to 15 years and/or a fine of up to three times the value of the thing of value offered (which this case could run into the tens of millions of dollars).

Professor Levy’s legal analysis seems, at least on a first reading, to be correct. At the same time, I find it unthinkable that any federal prosecutor—not just Jeff Sessions, but even someone like Preet Bharara—would bring criminal charges in this case, or that any judge would allow a conviction to stand. Professor Levy’s provocative essay has forced me to think a bit harder about why that is. The fact that I can’t imagine a federal bribery case could or should be brought against the Koch brothers for their announced campaign support plan, despite the fact that the conduct seems clearly to violate the letter of the law, suggests that something has gone seriously awry with how U.S. law, and U.S. political culture, think about the relationship between campaign donations, political speech, and criminal bribery. Continue reading

Against Alarmism: Frank Vogl’s Misguided Critique of the DOJ’s Decision Not To Re-Try Bob McDonnell

Earlier this month, the ongoing saga of the bribery charges against former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell came to an end—not with a bang but a whimper—when the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would not seek a re-trial in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision to vacate McDonnell’s original conviction. Given that we’ve already had plenty of discussion of the McDonnell case on GAB (including commentary on the Supreme Court’s decision here and here), I wasn’t planning to say more about this.

But then I read Frank Vogl’s blog post on The Globalist. Mr. Vogl’s view is that the DOJ’s decision shows that, with respect to corruption, it’s now the case that “[a]nything goes in America, third-world style” and that “[t]he United States, once an admirable leader on combatting political corruption, has now fallen into line with the lax standards of business-political relationships that pervade many other countries.” (He later refers to the U.S. “a stinking city on the Hill.”) Mr. Vogl also declares that the “core message” of the DOJ’s decision not to re-try McDonnell is that the DOJ has “accepted an increasingly narrow definition of corruption,” and he further insinuates that Hillary Clinton and the mainstream Democratic Party (as well as the Republican Party) are “content to accept money in politics in all its forms.”

This is histrionic nonsense. The core arguments are so obviously flawed that at first I didn’t think it was worth writing a rebuttal. But Mr. Vogl is an influential voice in the world of anticorruption advocacy, given that he’s one of the 852 co-founders of Transparency International. (OK, OK, that’s an exaggeration. But if I had a quarter for every person I’ve heard claim to have been one of the founders of TI, I’d be able to buy myself a Grande Frappuccino at my local Starbucks, maybe even a Venti.) So I thought it would be worthwhile to explain why I had such a negative reaction to his piece. Here goes: Continue reading

Guest Post: Fixing the Federal Definition of Bribery–From “Intent to Influence” to “Illegal Contract”

Albert W. Alschuler, the Julius Kreeger Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago Law School, contributes the following guest post:

In the United States, the principal federal criminal statute prohibiting the bribery of federal officials, 18 U.S.C. § 201(b), forbids “corruptly” offering or giving anything of value to an official “with the intent to influence any official act.” Yet, as I argue in a recent article, defining bribery primarily in terms of the payer’s “intent to influence” is overbroad. The phrase “intent to influence” not only seems on its face to reach common and widely accepted practices; it also invites speculation about motives and may produce prosecutions and convictions based on cynicism.

There’s an alternative: The American Law Institute’s 1962 Model Penal Code defines bribery as offering, giving, soliciting or accepting any pecuniary benefit as “consideration” for an official act. As a Texas court said of a state statute modeled on this provision, the Code “requir[es] a bilateral arrangement—in effect an illegal contract to exchange a benefit as consideration for the performance of an official function.” More than two-thirds of the states now embrace an “illegal contract” definition of bribery; the federal government and the remaining states should follow suit. Continue reading