Is It Time to Amend U.S. Domestic Anti-Bribery Statutes?

Last month’s hung jury in the trial of New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, coming hard on the heels of appellate court decisions to vacate the convictions of former U.S. Congressman William Jefferson and New York state legislators Dean Skelos and Sheldon Silver, has increased public attention to domestic U.S. anti-bribery laws—and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of those laws. As Professor Zephyr Teachout puts it, the Court, beginning in the 1999 case Sun-Diamond Growers and continuing up through last year’s decision in McDonnell, has steadily “hollowed out” U.S. anti-bribery laws, making it much more difficult to convict “anyone but the most inept criminals.”

Now, some of the recent commentary, particularly on the impact of the McDonnell case, may overstate things a bit. As Maddie pointed out in a recent post, the fact that the Skelos and Silver convictions (and, she might have added, the Jefferson conviction) were vacated in light of McDonnell doesn’t necessarily imply that the conduct alleged in those cases is now legal. Rather, the appellate decisions held that the jury instructions were improperly phrased, and left the door open for a retrial (which will occur in these other cases, even though the government declined to retry McDonnell). And we don’t really know how much of an effect the Supreme Court’s decision in McDonnell or other cases affected the jury’s inability to reach a verdict in Menendez; it’s possible that even with a jury instruction identical to the one found deficient in McDonnell, some of the Menendez jurors would have voted to acquit. All that said, there are certainly good reasons for concern about the seemingly narrow scope of U.S. anti-bribery law.

Some of this blame, as Professor Teachout persuasively argues, can be laid at the feet of the Supreme Court. Indeed, I argued that McDonnell’s conviction should have been affirmed, and criticized the Court’s unanimous decision to vacate it. That said, I do think there’s an argument in favor of the Supreme Court’s ruling in McDonnell, at least if the holding is read narrowly as concerning the phrasing of the jury instructions. Likewise, in Sun-Diamond Growers, the Court’s holding is actually quite plausible as a reading of the unlawful gratuities statute. (The Court held that a conviction under this statute, which prohibits corruptly giving anything of value to a public official “because of any official act” performed by that official, requires the government to show a connection between the gift and a specific official act, rather than relying on the more general claim that the recipient is in a position to make decisions that affect the giver’s welfare. The Court’s interpretation of the statutory language, while contestable, is certainly reasonable.)

Moreover, if we’re looking for an institution to blame for the current state of U.S. anti-bribery law—or to lobby for improvements in that law—the Supreme Court is perhaps not the only target. There’s also the U.S. Congress, which could, and arguably should, amend the hodge-podge of anti-bribery laws to fill some of the gaps that we find in current law, as interpreted by the Supreme Court. After all, though the Court has dropped occasional troubling hints about possible constitutional concerns with a broad reading of the anti-bribery statutes, most of the Court’s rulings in this area, in contrast to the related but distinct campaign finance context, are statutory rather than constitutional. And that means that Congress could conceivably step in to fix the problem. Continue reading

Does the First Amendment Protect Payment for Access?

 As many readers of this blog know, U.S. law on whether (or when) campaign donations can be proscribed by criminal anticorruption statutes is quite complicated, and to some degree unsettled. On the one hand, the Supreme Court has held that campaign contributions are constitutionally protected “speech” under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. On the other hand, U.S. criminal law can and does prohibit campaign donations that are the “quid” in a classic quid pro quo bribery transaction. In other words, it would unconstitutional for the U.S. to prohibit campaign donations to politicians even if such a prohibition is motivated by the generalized worry that politicians might show special solicitude to the interests of their big donors. But it is perfectly constitutional for Congress to prohibit quid pro quo transactions in which a private interest offers a campaign donation as the “quid” in exchange for some “quo.”

It remains an open question, however, what can qualify as the “quo.” Certainly passing legislation, directing federal funding, and securing special regulatory benefits and exceptions would suffice. But what about mere access — an understanding between the donor and elected official that a campaign contribution will get the donor special access to the official? Two recent Supreme Court opinions — Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC — contain language suggesting that it might be unconstitutional for U.S. law to prohibit an explicit quid pro quo agreement in which a politician offers access in exchange for campaign contributions. According to Citizens United, “[i]ngratiation and access . . . are not corruption,” while McCutcheon cautioned that “government regulation may not target the general gratitude a candidate may feel toward those who support him or his allies or the political access such support may afford” (emphasis added).

Despite this suggestive language, the Supreme Court has not yet had to confront head-on the question of whether the First Amendment protects quid pro quo payment-for-access. The closest it came was last year in United States v. McDonnell (discussed on the blog here, here, and here). In that case, Governor McDonnell helped to arrange meetings between businessman Jonnie Williams and government officials, and accepted personal gifts from Mr. Williams in exchange. By a vote of 7-0, the McDonnell Court reversed the governor’s conviction and construed the federal bribery statute at issue not to cover the governor’s conduct.

But this doesn’t resolve the constitutional question. McDonnell turned on the construction of the existing federal anti-bribery statute, which requires that the “quo” be an “official act,” which the Court construed narrowly as excluding provision of mere access. Moreover, McDonnell was not a First Amendment case, as the alleged bribes were not campaign contributions. Nonetheless, the Court did discuss the concept of corruption in a manner reminiscent of its opinions in Citizens United and McCutcheon. According to McDonnell: “[C]onscientious public officials arrange meetings for constituents, contact other officials on their behalf, and include them in events all the time. . . . The Government’s position [that McDonnell violated the law] could cast a pall of potential prosecution over these relationships if [a donor] had given a campaign contribution in the past . . . . Officials might wonder whether they could respond to even the most commonplace requests for assistance, and citizens with legitimate concerns might shrink from participating in democratic discourse.” Furthermore, McCutcheon — which was a First Amendment case — defined the sort of corruption that could justify restrictions on campaign donations as “a direct exchange of an official act for money” (emphasis added), which might imply that, at least in the campaign donation context, McDonnell’s reading of the anti-bribery statute is constitutionally required.

But is that right? Separate from the question of whether Congress should criminalize payment-for-access, and from the question of whether Congress has in fact done so in the existing federal anti-bribery statutes, is the question of whether Congress could criminally proscribe payment-for-access if it wanted to. In other words, is payment-for-access constitutionally protected? Though some of the Supreme Court’s recent language has suggested such a conclusion, I believe that proposition is wrong, for three reasons:

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Cash Crunch: How Will India’s Supreme Court Respond to Modi’s Radical Move?

Last November 8th, the same day the United States elected a kleptocrat to its highest office, an executive on the other side of the world—Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi—launched what Larry Summers called “the most sweeping change in currency policy that has occurred anywhere in the world for decades.” Prime Minister Modi’s surprise “demonetization” drive gave citizens fifty days to exchange all 500 and 1000 rupee notes (valued at about 8 and 15 USD respectively). Modi’s radical move, which will remove approximately 86% of all currency in circulation, is an attempt to combat endemic petty corruption, money laundering, terrorist financing, and tax   evasion (only 2% of Indians pay income tax). Prime Minister Modi was elected on an anticorruption platform in 2014, and pledged during his campaign to target hidden cash (so-called “black money”). Yet the demonetization campaign came as a surprise. Indeed, it probably had to be a surprise, lest those hiding fortunes in cash would have been able to prepare for the policy change.

While the Indian public generally supports aggressive anticorruption efforts, it would be hard to exaggerate the disruption resulting from demonetization. The real estate and wedding industries run largely on cash, as do most small businesses. And the demonetization program has hit regular citizens hard: People have been waiting in lines for hours to exchange their cash, which can be especially difficult for the four-fifths of women who don’t have a bank account. In the short term, consumption, the stock market, and growth forecasts have all plummeted and the agricultural sector is expected to suffer as well. Prime Minister Modi acknowledged the campaign would cause pain for many honest people, but believed it was worth it, stating that black money and “corruption are the biggest obstacles in eradicating poverty.” (Since then, the official justification for the campaign appears to have shifted to an attack on the cash economy as a whole, rather than a campaign against black money specifically.)

The fate of the demonetization program now lies with India’s judiciary: 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

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

Williams-Yulee and Why It’s Time for America to Stop Electing Judges

For casual news fans and avid U.S. Supreme Court junkies alike, the past week’s headlines have been dominated, not surprisingly, by stories about Obergefell v. Hodges, the same-sex marriage case.  But there’s another story that emerged from the Court this week that deserves special attention in this forum:  Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar Association. In that case — issued the day after oral argument in Obergefell — the Court once again waded into America’s longstanding but peculiar experiment with judicial elections.

For more than 150 years, the United States has stood apart from most of the world in its practice of electing judges; today, 39 U.S. states elect at least some judges and 87% of state court judges will stand for an election at some point in their careers. Why this fascination with judicial elections? Well, it can be chalked up to the populist origins of the practice — as a measure for combating corrupt patronage networks in the mid-1800s — and the belief that elections render judges more democratically accountable.

But as states like Florida have learned, judicial elections never lived up to their populist promise. In fact, there was a time, not so long ago, when corruption ruled Florida’s judiciary. The stories abound: There was the judge in the late 1960s who required lawyers to contribute to his campaign before they could argue. Even more embarrassing were the three members of the Florida Supreme Court who resigned in the early 1970s after getting caught pressuring lower courts to rule in favor of the justices’ campaign donors, allowing an interested party to ghostwrite an opinion, and enjoying a gambling spree in Las Vegas courtesy of a dog track that was litigating a case before the court. The reason for this gap between theory and practice: the need to raise campaign funds undercuts judicial integrity and invites quid pro quo corruption.

Now, Williams-Yulee turned out to be a victory for anticorruption: the Court held that Florida could bar judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions. Unfortunately, though, the victory is small and fleeting: the Court’s reasoning focused on the extremely narrow nature of the Florida rule and impliedly rejected most campaign finance restrictions in judicial elections (beyond contribution limits). So even after Williams-Yulee, states still have little in their arsenal with which to combat the evils of judicial elections. Maybe then, in an era when more and more money is flowing into judicial campaigns, Williams-Yulee ought to be our wake-up call — a sign that its time for the United States to kick the “insanely and characteristically American” habit of electing judges.

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