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.

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Did the McDonnell Decision Legalize Putting Public Officials on Retainer? Menendez’s Challenge to the “Stream of Benefits” Theory

In my post two weeks ago, I argued that in order to assess whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the McDonnell case would have a major impact on public corruption prosecutions—and in the slightly-hyperbolic words of some commentators, whether the decision “legalized public corruption”—the case to watch is the trial of New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez. Since most of the case law coming out of the McDonnell decision has focused on the definition of “official acts” in the context of quid pro quo bribery, many of those watching the Menendez trial expected it to center on how the court interpreted “official acts,” and whether Menendez’s actions qualified. But the case took an unexpected twist: the same day I published my post, Judge William Walls zeroed in on McDonnell’s effect on the prosecution’s stream of benefits theory of corruption—a key part of the government’s case.

According to the “stream of benefits” theory of corruption, prosecutors can establish an implicit quid pro quo by showing that a series of bribes were made to keep an official “on retainer,” so the donor can benefit from the official’s service as needed. In other words, on this theory, the government does not need to connect a specific individual gift to a specific individual act. Instead, the government can show that the private party provided a series of payments or gifts to the public servant over time, in exchange for the public servant being “on call” to perform official acts in return as needed. On this theory, the specific official act (the “quo”) doesn’t need to be known or contemplated at the time of the bribe (the “quid”). In Menendez, prosecutors invoked that theory, and attempted to show that the many favors Dr. Salomon Melgen did for Senator Menendez over a period of several years—such as rides on his private plane and trips to luxury resorts in the Caribbean—were offered in exchange for a series of actions Menendez took to lobby the executive branch on Dr. Melgen’s behalf. (The government alleges other charges against Menendez, such as making false statements on financial disclosure forms related to the bribery, but the stream-of-benefits bribery allegations are the heart of the case.)

Senator Menendez’s defense team—drawing on an argument developed in a Cato Institute reportmoved to dismiss the case, arguing that McDonnell narrowed the scope of “official act” so much so that the public official must agree to perform a “specific and focused” act rather than a “broad policy objective,” meaning that the theory that a public official is kept “on retainer” in exchange for a series of favors cannot stand. Judge Walls said he was not sure that the stream of benefits theory was still viable after the McDonnell ruling, and asked the parties to brief the issue over the weekend, even saying to the DOJ lawyers that “if stream of benefits still lives, then you’ve got a chance.” Commentators accordingly rang the alarm bells, worried what extending McDonnell this far would mean for public corruption cases (see here and here).

Judge Walls eventually ruled last Monday that McDonnell did not prevent prosecutors from arguing a stream of benefits theory, concluding instead that the issue of whether there was a quid pro quo was a question of fact for the jury to decide. This was the right decision. Indeed, it’s troubling that the judge took the issue as seriously as he seemed to, as the idea that a fair reading of McDonnell requires outright rejection of the stream of benefits theory seems farfetched. Continue reading

To Gauge McDonnell’s Impact, Menendez—Not Skelos or Silver—Is the Case To Watch

In June 2016, the United States Supreme Court vacated the conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. McDonnell had been convicted for accepting loans, gifts, vacations, and other valuable items from a businessman. In return, Governor McDonnell allegedly promised or performed a number of “official acts,” mostly in connection with trying to help the businessman get state government support for a nutritional supplement his company was developing. The Supreme Court vacated the conviction on the grounds that the trial court improperly instructed the jury on what conduct could count as an “official act” (the “quo” in a quid pro quo) under the federal bribery statute. In particular, the trial court had instructed the jury that “official acts” could include things like helping the businessman by arranging meetings with state government decision-makers, hosting an event to promote his business, or suggesting that subordinates speak to him. The Supreme Court ruled that this definition of “official act” was too broad, since it encompassed almost any act a government official takes.

How much did McDonnell change the landscape for federal corruption prosecutions in the United States? Some worry that it has already had a large and unfortunate impact, and point to recent developments in New York: Last July, a little over a year after the McDonnell decision, a federal appeals court relied on McDonnell as the basis for vacating the conviction of Sheldon Silver, the former New York State Assembly Speaker who was found guilty in 2015 for taking millions in payments in return for supporting legislation and directing grants that helped the payers. And just last month, another panel of that appellate court also relied on McDonnell in vacating the conviction of former New York State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who was convicted in 2015 (along with his son Adam) for bribery, extortion, and conspiracy. According to prosecutors, Skelos had promised votes and taken actions benefitting three companies in exchange for providing his son with consulting fees, a job, and direct payments.

Skelos’ and Silver’s convictions were seen as a victory for federal prosecutors, and a much-overdue effort to clean up the notoriously corrupt New York state government. Many commentators pointed to the recent appellate court rulings vacating those convictions as evidence of McDonnell’s broad and malign effects on efforts to clean up corruption (see, for example here , here, and here). But while the vacations of these convictions are a setback for anticorruption advocates, they do not actually reveal much about the reach of McDonnell, nor are they likely to materially change the fates of Skelos and Silver. The much more important case to watch—the one that will be a better indicator of McDonnell’s long-term impact— is the trial of New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. 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: What the McDonnell Ruling Means for Future Corruption Prosecutions

Ziran Zhang, an associate at Burnham & Gorokhov, PLLC, a Washington D.C. law firm, contributes the following guest post:

The Supreme Court’s decision last month in United States v. McDonnell has raised questions about the continued vitality of public corruption prosecutions in the United States. Some observers, including Professor Stephenson, pointed out that the decision itself was cast in narrow terms, and may not make a big difference to most public corruption cases.  I respectfully disagree: McDonnell created an important substantive rule of law that will have a lasting impact, and this impact is apparent when one applies McDonnell’s holding to another high-profile public corruption case—the prosecution of former New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez.

To prove a bribery offense, the government must show (among other things) that the public official promised an official act, defined further as a “decision or action” on a “question or matter” (or cause, proceeding, or suit). A “question or matter,” the McDonnell opinion holds, must be a “formal exercise of government power” that is “specific” and “concrete.” As for a “decision” or “action,” it can be direct (such as when an official issues an order or makes a decision) or indirect (such as when an official “exerts pressure” or “gives advice” to another official.) McDonnell left substantial uncertainty over what counts as “exerting pressure” or “giving advice.”  As Professor Stephenson’s post points out, pressure is inherent from any kind of contact between a subordinate and an official in high office, but in McDonnell the Supreme Court quite clearly rejected that view, indicating that something more is required.

So, how does the McDonnell holding affect the prosecution of Senator Menendez? The facts of the Menendez prosecution are remarkably similar to those of the McDonnell case. According to the indictment, Senator Menendez had a longstanding friendship with Dr. Salomon Melgen. Melgen gave Menendez gifts, such as free flights, luxury hotel stays, and money to various political campaigns benefiting Menendez; Menendez returned the favors in various ways: Continue reading

Video: Columbia Law School Proxy Debate on McDonnell’s Bribery Appeal

As regular GAB readers know, we’ve had quite a bit of discussion on this blog about the case of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, and I’ve been particularly adamant in my views that the conviction ought to be affirmed. (See here, here, here, and here.) The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in McDonnell’s case tomorrow morning, and if anything interesting happens I may write about it again. In the meantime, while there won’t be a live audio or video of the Supreme Court argument, anyone who’s dying to hear some live debate about the legal argument is in luck! (Well, sort of.) A couple weeks ago the Columbia Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity hosted (in collaboration with the Columbia Federalist Society) a debate on the McDonnell case between John Malcolm, the director of the Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, and yours truly.

The full video is here. From my perspective, the most important exchange is at 47:13-50:38, where I put to Mr. Malcolm the question whether a federal crime would have been completed if the businessman (Jonnie Williams) and Governor McDonnell agreed that Mr. Williams would provide Governor McDonnell with valuable items (cash or the equivalent), and in exchange—as part of a quid pro quo—the governor would use his influence to get state medical institutions to perform expensive medical studies on the product Mr. Williams’ company produced. Mr. Malcolm concedes that the answer is yes: In that hypothetical example the “official act” element would be satisfied, so long as the quid pro quo is proved. (I make that initial point at 30:59-31:50 of the video and restate it, in the context of the adequacy of the jury instructions, at 34:57-35:32. But, again, the most important part of the exchange is at 47:13-50:38.)

To me, that concession ought to be the end of the argument. Mr. Malcolm’s argument, like that of Governor McDonnell’s lawyers, boils down to the claim that the particular steps that the governor took to try (unsuccessfully) to bring about those tests weren’t official acts (a conclusion, by the way, that I think is just wrong, but put that aside). But that doesn’t matter, because in this case there was an express quid pro quo involving a specific official act. Of course I’ve got my own strongly-held views on this. I leave it to interested readers to watch the video, and read the Supreme Court transcript once it’s available, and decide what you think.

One more aspect of the debate worth noting: In attempting to distinguish the McDonnell case from the Bob Menendez case and certain hypothetical examples I raised (see 38:53-40:25), Mr. Malcolm suggested, as a distinction, that the federal bribery statutes don’t apply if the subject of the quid pro quo is a matter that is not yet pending before the government (see 42:15-45:52 and 45:55-46:21). I didn’t have time to respond to that suggestion during the event itself, nor is it (to my knowledge) an argument that McDonnell’s lawyers have raised in their briefs, but for what it’s worth, I think the claim is inconsistent with the relevant statutes. Notably, 18 U.S.C. 201(a)(3) defines “official act” as “any decision or action on any question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy, which may at any time be pending, or which may by law be brought before any public official, in such official’s official capacity, or in such official’s place of trust or profit” (emphasis added). Seems clear to me that a promised act can still be “official” even if the matter concerns an action that is not yet pending, but that may be pending in the future, or that could be brought before an official, even if it has not yet been. I suspect Mr. Malcolm may have been improvising a bit here–neither of us had the statute in front of us or committed to memory. In any event, the difficulties in a holding that the federal bribery statutes don’t apply as long as the subject of the quid pro quo is not yet formally pending before the government at the time the bribe takes place ought to be too obvious to belabor.

More on McDonnell: Can We Please Get the Facts Straight?

As many GAB readers know, we’ve had quite a number of posts over the last year about the ongoing legal drama surrounding the conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell on federal corruption charges (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court (to my chagrin) announced that it would hear Governor McDonnell’s appeal; the Court will address only the question of whether the “official action” required for a conviction under the federal anti-bribery statutes “is limited to exercising actual governmental power, threatening to exercise such power, or pressuring others to exercise such power, and whether the jury must be so instructed; or, if not so limited, whether [these statutes] are unconstitutional.”

I don’t want to spend too much time repeating my arguments as to why I think that upholding Governor McDonnell’s conviction is both the legally correct answer under existing U.S. law as it stands, and why a contrary conclusion would be a major setback for efforts to combat high-level bribery, particularly of public officials who can wield considerable influence over official decisions even without exercising the formal powers of their offices (for more on my views, see here, here, and here). Yet I continue to find myself somewhere between baffled and outraged by the mischaracterizations of what the jury and lower courts actually found, with respect to what Governor McDonnell (and his wife) did. To read the Court of Appeals opinion (which the Supreme Court will now review), and the briefs filed on Governor McDonnell’s behalf, and the various op-eds written by his supporters, is to be on two different planets. Continue reading