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Greasing the wheels, paying the piper, mutual back-scratching, and other clever terms are all commonly used to describe the same corrupt act - bribery.

Bribery is the offer or acceptance of anything of value in exchange for influence on a government official or employee. In general, bribes can take the form of gifts or payments of money in exchange for favorable treatment, such as awards of government contracts. Other forms of bribes may include property, valuables, privileges, items of value, services, and favors.

Bribery: An Overview

Bribes are always intended to influence or alter the action of various individuals, and they go hand in hand with both political and public corruption. No written agreement is necessary to prove this crime, but a prosecutor generally must show intent to influence. In most situations, both the person offering the bribe — the briber — and the person accepting it can be charged. Incomplete attempts to bribe or even failure to report conflicts of interests, gifts, or kickbacks received by public officials can also be a crime.

In a classic example, William Jefferson, a U.S. Congressman, collected hundreds of millions of dollars from business interests who wanted his help to obtain agency approvals for their businesses or the assistance of foreign governments in Africa. He was involved in at least eleven different bribery schemes between 2000 and 2005, pocketing nearly a half-million dollars for himself in the process. When the FBI raided his home and arrested him, he had $90,000 of cold hard cash hidden in his freezer. He was ultimately sentenced to thirteen years in prison for his crimes.

Even judges can succumb to the temptation of accepting bribes. In 2019, Rudy Delgado, a federal judge in Texas, was convicted for accepting payments from lawyers who wanted favorable treatment for their clients in his court. In some instances, he even freed defendants from pre-trial detention after their attorneys paid bribes. As one prosecuting attorney remarked, "He didn't just tip the scales of justice, he knocked it over with a wad of cash."

The Delgado case illustrates why bribery is such a serious crime. Judges are perhaps the most trusted of public servants. When trusted officials act corruptly, the public faith in government and justice is undermined. As a result, even those officials who abide by the law are viewed with suspicion.

Elements of a Bribery Charge

At the most fundamental level, charges of bribery need only to prove that some official benefit (such as a vote, recommendation, decision, or use of political influence) was offered or solicited by a government official in exchange for a sum of money or something else of value.

Either the person offering a bribe or the official asking for a bribe could be prosecuted. If the transaction is agreed to or commenced, both parties could face criminal charges. Evidence for a bribery charge could include a recorded phone call between a public official and a constituent offering a bribe, or a police bodycam video of a driver handing the officer cash at a traffic stop. Depending on the jurisdiction, a conviction can result in a fine and prison time.

The federal government has very specific elements that it uses to prosecute cases of bribery against federal employees. These elements include the following:

  1. The individual being bribed is a "public official," which includes both rank-and-file federal employees and elected officials.
  2. A "thing of value" has been offered, whether it is tangible (such as cash) or intangible (such as the promise of influence or official support).
  3. There's an "official act" that may be influenced by a bribe (such as pending legislation that may have a direct impact on the party offering the bribe).
  4. The public official has the authority or power to commit the official act (for instance, the official is a senator who is voting on a particular piece of legislation).
  5. There must be the establishment of intent on the part of the bribing party to get a desired result (e.g. the intent to sway the vote by handing over an envelope full of cash).
  6. The prosecution must establish a causal connection between the payment and the act, showing something more than just a suspicious coincidence.

It is important to note that when public officials are bribed for public action, that action need not be harmful to the public interest in order to be illegal.

Other Examples of Bribery

Bribery can happen in many different contexts — at the state level and in the federal government, as well as in the private sector.

In the sporting world, for example, one boxer might offer another a payoff to "throw" (deliberately lose) an important fight, or a gambler may offer to pay a basketball player to "shave" points off the score so a team loses by more points. These examples are likely to be prosecuted as fraud or racketeering crimes.

In the corporate arena, a company could bribe employees of a rival company for recruitment services. This type of action is not necessarily illegal and might only be remediated in civil courts as a breach of contract.

The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977 made it unlawful for a United States citizen, as well as certain foreign issuers of securities, to pay a foreign official in order to obtain business with any person. This made business dealings difficult in foreign countries where business transactions are customarily influenced by kickbacks, gifts, or other items of value

In 1998, a provision to the Act was added which applies to any foreign firms or foreign-born persons who take any act in furtherance of a corrupt payment while in the United States.

Another crime often associated (and sometimes confused) with bribery is extortion. The difference is that bribing someone involves offering a positive reward for compliance, whereas extortion uses threats of violence or other negative acts in exchange for compliance.

Let an Attorney Help You Defend Against Bribery Charges

An alleged act of bribing someone could result in charges in a wide variety of courts, and the evidence or statements that come out in one court might be used against you in another. As such, an organized and forward-looking strategy for defense should be developed. Contact a qualified, local criminal defense attorney today to learn more.

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