KADNER: When it is impossible to tell a campaign donation from a bribe
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Politicians in Illinois never needed help identifying a bribe. But now they’re asking the U.S. Supreme Court for assistance.
A large group of elected officials from here asked the high court to hear the case of Rod Blagojevich v. United States of America so they can solicit money without fear of going to prison.
Every time I hear the TV commercial that includes the FBI wiretap of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich talking about possibly, maybe, perhaps doing a favor for J.B. Pritzker because he has the power to appoint a replacement Illinois attorney general (no promises, mind you), this court case about corruption comes to mind.
A bunch of Chicago area politicians have filed a friend of the court brief with the high court because they believe the current law regarding bribery is so confusing an innocent person in public office could end up in prison just for talking about exchanging a Senate seat for money.
Among those seeking clarity are a number of our finest congressmen (Jan Schakowsky, Danny Davis, Bobby Rush, Louis Gutierrez to name a few) and a bunch of other politicians and groups representing campaign donors.
Average folks have always been pretty confused about the difference between a bribe and an envelope full of cash handed to a politician. Candidates have always claimed clarity: People love them and want them to have money to run for office.
During the federal trials of both Blagojevich and former Gov. George Ryan, defense lawyers claimed that bribery and corruption were so common in Springfield everyone figured they were legal.
They argued that trading political favors for cash is the essence of the American political process.
Jurors eventually sent both of them to prison because, well, taxpayers have always thought it stinks and lack an appreciation for the subtleties of the law.
The Hobbs Act defines extortion as obtaining a payment to which an official is not entitled knowing that it was made in exchange for official acts. In a case known as McCormick v. United States, the Supreme Court created what is known as a bright-line standard for the application of the law when it comes to the solicitation of campaign contributions.
The receipt of a campaign contribution by an elected official constitutes extortion within the meaning of the Hobbs Act “only if the payments are made in return for an explicit promise or understanding by the official to perform or not to perform an official act.”
One year later, the Court decided Evans v. United States and held that, “passive acceptance of a benefit by a public official is sufficient to form the basis of a Hobbs Act violation if the official knows that he is being offered the payment in exchange for a specifically requested exercise of his official power. The official need not take any specific action to induce the offering of the benefit.”
As a result, two different standards appear to exist, one tougher than the other, and the friend of the court brief suggests that’s simply not fair to political candidates who need to solicit money to run for public office. And the people most likely to give the most money, of course, are those seeking political favors.
It’s only reasonable that elected officials be given some clear guidelines, the legal brief states, or all our politicians may end up in prison.
How about this for a guideline: Don’t solicit bribes. Act as if the FBI is watching your every move and listening to every phone call. Better yet, pretend the voters are watching and you are representing them.