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.