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The offering, giving, receiving, or soliciting of something of value for the purpose of influencing the action of an official in the discharge of his or her public or legal duties.
The expectation of a particular voluntary action in return is what makes the difference between a bribe and a private demonstration of goodwill. To offer or provide payment in order to persuade someone with a responsibility to betray that responsibility is known as seeking undue influence over that person's actions. When someone with power seeks payment in exchange for certain actions, that person is said to be peddling influence. Regardless of who initiates the deal, either party to an act of bribery can be found guilty of the crime independently of the other.
A bribe can consist of immediate cash or of personal favors, a promise of later payment, or anything else the recipient views as valuable. When the U.S. military threatened to cancel a Texas relocation company's contracts to move families to and from military bases, the company allegedly gave four representatives in Congress an all-expenses-paid weekend in Las Vegas in January 1989, and $2,500 in speaking fees. The former president of the company was indicted by a federal grand jury in 1994 on bribery charges for both gifts.
No written agreement is necessary to prove the crime of bribery, but usually a prosecutor must show corrupt intent. Bribery charges may involve public officials or private individuals. In the world of professional sports, for example, one boxer might offer another a payoff to "throw" (deliberately lose) an important fight. In the corporate arena, a company could bribe employees of a rival company for recruitment services or other actions at odds with their employer's interests. Even when public officials are involved, a bribe does not need to be harmful to the public interest in order to be illegal.
When a public official accepts a bribe, he or she creates a conflict of interest. That is, the official cannot accommodate the interests of another party without compromising the responsibilities of her or his position.
There is not always consensus over what counts as a bribe. For instance, in many states and at the federal level, certain gifts and campaign contributions are not considered bribes and do not draw prosecution unless they can be linked to evidence of undue influence. In this regard, negative public perception of private contributions to elected officials as payola has caused most states to establish legislative ethics committees to review the public-private relationships of house and senate members. Furthermore, both houses of the U.S. Congress passed legislation in 1994 restricting gifts to no more than $20 in value.
The Supreme Court further clarified the law by setting standards for federal bribery statutes in United States v. Sun Diamond Growers, 526 U.S. 398, 119 S.Ct. 1402, 143 L.Ed.2d 576 (1999). This case grew out of the prosecution of Mike Espy, secretary of agriculture in the Clinton administration, for allegedly accepting bribes. After Espy was acquitted of all charges, the independent counsel charged Sun Diamond Growers, a trade association for a large agricultural cooperative, with violating a federal gratuities law that prohibits giving gifts to public officials in exchange for favorable government actions.
After Sun Diamond was convicted of the charges it took its case to the Supreme Court. The Court concluded that a person did not violate the law merely by giving a gift to a public official. Prosecutors must show that there was a connection between a specific official act in the past or future and the gift. Justice Antonin Scalia noted that if the government did not have to prove this linkage then a token gift such as the presentation of a sports jersey by a championship team to the president could be regarded as a criminal act.
The Court also noted differences in various federal bribery statutes, which included broad prohibitions. In the present case, the language of the gratuities statute did not reveal a similar intent by Congress; instead, the Court viewed this law as one strand of a complicated web of laws and regulations addressing official behavior.
It is common for both the recipient and the provider of a bribe to be accused, although bribery is not a joint offense—that is, one person's guilt does not affect the other's. Such was the case when a popular Massachusetts state senator allegedly accepted monthly payments from an investment broker in exchange for trying to persuade state officials to send state pension business to the broker. The legislator and the broker were both indicted on misdemeanor charges in early 1995.
U.S. companies that engage in international bribery can become targets of investigation at home. In January 1995, a former sales director of Lockheed Corporation pleaded guilty to violating the federal Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. § 78dd-1 et seq., Allen R. Love told a U.S. district court that he had paid and helped to cover up a bribe to an Egyptian politician for arranging Egypt's 1989 purchase of three Lockheed transport planes.
Congress adopted the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in 1977 to outlaw payments that are intended to win contracts from foreign officials. Ironically, the law's passage was triggered by testimony from a former vice president of the same Lockheed Corporation at a U.S. congressional hearing in 1976. In that case, the company's vice president admitted to bribing the prime minister of Japan with more than $1.9 million in the early 1970s, so that Japan would buy Lockheed's TriStar wide-body jets.
The severity of bribery can reach the felony level, punishable by a fine or imprisonment, or both. However, charges are sometimes reduced in exchange for helping to convict accomplices. For instance, in June 1994, Love pleaded innocent to felony charges of bribery and conspiracy. Later, he pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of "indirectly" conspiring, as part of a plea agreement in which he agreed to testify against the corporation itself, which was also a defendant.
The international sports community was rocked by a bribery scandal involving the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah. Two officials of the Utah committee that secured the games were indicted in 2000 on charges of wire and mail fraud, conspiracy, and interstate travel in aid of racketeering. They were charged with paying an official of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) to help influence the selection of Salt Lake City by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The USOC official who received the bribes later pleaded guilty to several criminal charges including the accepting of a bribe.
Federal prosecutors contended that the two officials had paid $1 million to influence votes of several IOC members. In addition, they had allegedly diverted some $130,000 of the bid committee's income, and had altered books and created false contracts to conceal their actions. The two officials denied that they had done anything wrong, contending that the payments were intended as grants and scholarships for poor athletes. Following the indictments, ten members of the IOC either resigned or were expelled from the organization, and many reforms were undertaken to prevent bribery. The USOC also authorized an independent review of its practices.
However, the two Utah officials successfully challenged the bribery charges. In July 2001, a federal judge dismissed the bribery charges, finding that a Utah bribery statute could not be applied to the defendants' actions. In December 2001, the judge dismissed the remaining criminal counts.
Jones Day Publication: The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act: Enforcement Trends in 2010 and Beyond
McChesney, Fred S. 1997. Money for Nothing: Politicians, Rent Extraction, and Political Extortion. Cambridge, Mass.: Univ of Harvard Press.
Noonan, John Thomas. 1984. Bribes. New York: Macmillan.
PBS: Online NewsHour. February 11, 1999. "IOC: Cleaning House." Available online at <http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/sports/jan-june99/olympics_2-11.html> (accessed June 6, 2003).