Archive for the 'Public Corruption Law' Category

Presidents and Conflicts of Interest

November 28, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

The questions about the President-Elect’s business interests have so far revolved around those benefits he might enjoy from foreign holdings and transactions, and still more specifically those provided in part by foreign governments. It is argued that a constitutional issue arises under the Emoluments Clause barring any “person holding any office of profit or trust”, without the consent of the Congress, from accepting any gift from a foreign government. Some scholars contend that the Clause likely applies to presidents; others disagree.

But the attention paid to foreign source business income has left mostly to one side the larger question of the leeway presidents have to operate outside the conflict of interest rules all senior executive branch officials (other than the Vice President) have to follow. For example, presidents and vice presidents are not subject to gift restrictions. 5 C.F.R. §2635.204(j). They may accept any and all gifts from any and all sources (except, on the Emoluments theory, from foreign governments). The exception rests on the belief that considerations of etiquette and protocol require allowing a president to accept personal gifts.

Most presidents, most of the time, accept such gifts but only in trust for the United States. But the rule gives them the choice. And that choice in turn is governed by little other than a concern for appearances or, if the gift is proffered by a favor-seeker, by the wish to avoid liability for bribery. The only requirement is public disclosure: presidents must report once a year the gifts they are free to receive.

In other words, this is a rule buttressed by a norm: the rule allows for the acceptance of the gift, but the norm operates to limit the circumstances in which the president would normally accept a gift for himself.   The norm does all the work. Another example of a norm addressed to conflicts of interest, but in this instance operating through transparency, is the traditional release of tax returns. Mr. Trump declined to release them during the campaign, or any time prior to the conclusion of the audit now in progress. There is no rule; the choice is his.

So while the President-Elect overstates his view that Presidents are free of all conflict of interest rules--a president can be prosecuted, not just impeached, for bribery--he is not wrong that the rules don’t apply to the Chief Executive as they do to all other senior government employees.

David Rivkin and Lee Casey offer up a range of justifications for this presidential freedom from more extensive conflict of interest rules. They say that to attempt to regulate these conflicts will discourage wealthy people from running for office; they don’t seem to accept the proposition that someone seeking extraordinary political power might give something up for it and, if unwilling to do so, might be revealing something troubling about motivation or suitability. Or as Peggy Noon put the point in the Wall Street Journal: his job now is different and “it requires sacrifice.”

A theme appearing in a number of post-McDonnell commentaries and editorials is that the Court has made more difficult the prosecution of bribery-based public corruption. It is certainly true that the Court has pared down the reading that could be given to bribery, and especially of the pay to play sort: paying for access alone, in the “typical form, such as arranging a meeting or phone call for someone to make a case for government action. As a practical matter, however, there remains considerable peril in access-buying. How much of a problem prosecutors will now face in bringing these cases is an open question.

In many corruption cases, some person’s (P’s) wish to have official A contact official B, to open up the channels of communication and advocacy, does not arise because B is somehow unavailable. B is or has been available, just not on the terms that the private party finds advantageous. B might rarely takes private meetings, requiring more formal submissions, or delegates much of the responsibility for face-to face encounters to staff. Or B has had the meeting with others present, and P would like a more private discussion. Or B has had the meeting, and P wants another, not confident that the first did the trick.

So P is looking for something he could not otherwise get, or so he believes, by having A ask B to provide the opportunity. Because B might not otherwise grant the audience, B is getting a message from A in many such cases—that A has a special interest in P, if not in P’s cause.

Depending on the facts, these circumstances, usually together with other facts, can constitute a trial question of exerted “pressure” from A on B, which the Court in McDonnell retained within its narrowed definition of “official act.” Neither P nor A are in the clear if P provided benefits to A in return for help with B.

The Supreme Court and “Access-Buying” in McDonnell

June 28, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer
This is the text of my piece published this morning on McDonnell in the Washington Post:

A unanimous Supreme Court held Monday that it is not - certainly not under any and all circumstances - a crime for someone to pay for "access" to government decision-makers. Careful not to say so too explicitly, the court is signaling that political favor-seeking fueled by cash and gifts may well be repellent, but there is only so much the legal system can - or should - do about it.

Amid all the election-year talk about a "rigged" political system, the room left by this opinion for pay-to-play politics strikes a somewhat discordant note. Two years ago, in a case involving overall contribution limits, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that contributors can reasonably expect some measure of "ingratiation and access." Now, Roberts has taken another, aggressive step in that same direction, this time involving personal gifts rather than political contributions. He has brought the court along with the view that the bribery laws don't necessarily reach purely personal benefits provided to a government official in return for help arranging meetings or scheduling calls.

The McDonnell Case: the “Messages” to Citizens

May 2, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

On two occasions, during the Supreme Court argument in the McDonnell case, the Deputy Solicitor General warned the court against narrowing prosecutable public corruption standards.  It would send a "terrible message" to citizens.  After the second time, Justice Breyer said he is “not in the business” of sending messages "in a case like this."  He meant a case that raised fundamental separation of powers principles.  To what extent would vague criminal standards empower prosecutors with their considerable authority to prescribe the boundaries of acceptable political conduct?

Chief Roberts went further and said that the Court’s experience with the argument that very day might prompt doubts that the Justices were wise in Skilling have let the honest services statute pass constitutional muster.

It was in that way an extraordinary argument, highlighting through dead-end hypotheticals and confusing exchanges the ambiguity of the law--an argument that defied the best efforts at clarification of everybody involved.

The “Access” Issue

January 26, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

One line of argument in the McDonnell case briefing accepts that supporters might expect some preferential treatment—“procedural access,” like a meeting—but not official influence to carry the supporter’s case on the merits.  This is one way that routine politics would be distinguished from corrupt politics.

Professor Jeffrey Bellin, thoughtfully but also passionately, says that this won’t do, and that routine politics, including rewarding supporters with access, ought to be criminalized.  Getting any preferential consideration for money is quid pro quo corruption.  If the Court will establish and hold this line, Professor Bellin argues, it will reduce the significance of money in politics and “the big money will dry up.”

One question is how the Court would fashion a workable rule along these lines.  Without a “per se rule” barring an elected official from ever scheduling meetings with a contributor, or making similar accommodations, the approach Bellin favors would require scrutinizing the motives, often mixed, of politicians.  A politician might schedule a meeting requested by a contributor because she has given, but also because she has something to say that the elected official would like to hear.  Or the politician might even have something to say to the donor—something she, the politician, would like to have understood by the industry or interests that a donor might represent.  The contributor might also have provided other forms of support that the officeholders might wish to recognize—like help on the campaign trail.  It is difficult to say where the raw politics end and the rotten, corrupt kind begin, and no easier to believe that prosecutors and courts are in the best position to judge the question.

But there are additional problems with this emphasis on money. Supporters who deliver votes, endorsements or favorable media commentary are also banking plenty of goodwill with an elected official, and they will also expect that their calls will be returned and that their requests for meetings will be answered affirmatively.  They are being recognized for their political speech (and other actions that are expressive in character). Why would giving money, within the legal limits of the law, be treated as somehow so different that we would deny these speakers comparable treatment, then subject them to the criminal laws if they get it? In what way is money different?