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Crimes of public corruption, including bribery, gratuity, and extortion undermine the integrity of the American political infrastructure and constitute a threat to coveted democratic values. As such, federal investigative agencies and prosecutors are zealous in bringing offenders to justice.
The prosecution of a public corruption case is often the culmination of a prolonged investigative project, in which substantial amounts of direct and indirect, or circumstantial, evidence will have been collected.
Moreover, cases of public corruption are not inherently complicated for a jury to understand, as opposed to other federal offenses such as securities fraud or tax crimes. Consequently, if one is a defendant in a public corruption case, retaining a trial-tested and experienced Virginia federal public corruption lawyer is critical. Below is a brief discussion of the substantive offenses, the various nuances associated with each, and their penalties.
A bribe is commonly understood as the giving of something of value with corrupt intent, in exchange for some sort of act or influence of an act. This behavior is illegal, and under federal law, bribery imposes criminal liability on both the giver and receiver of the bribe (who must be a federal public official). The most common statutory provision invoked by prosecutors is 18 U.S.C. Section 201 – the federal bribery and gratuities statute. The complete text of the law can be found here, but a brief description of some of the elements of the crime is below.
In order to be charged with bribery, there must have been the giving or receiving of something of value. While cash is the first thing that comes to mind, there are — practically speaking — a limitless number of things that could fulfill this element. The reason for this is that the item of value is subjectively, not objectively, determined. Thus, if a federal official deems it of personal value, the element of the crime will have been fulfilled. This is one element that a Virginia federal public corruption attorney may have success contesting in court.
A second element of bribery refers to the recipient of the bribe. Section 201 requires that either the recipient of the bribe or the briber be a federal public official. While this does place a constraint on who can be held criminally liable for bribery, the courts have interpreted the public official requirement broadly.
In the seminal case of Dixon v. United States (1984), the Court held that Congress did not intend for the law to be limited to those with a strictly formal connection to the US government. More specifically, it was held that a federal public official under Section 201 is a person who “occupies a position of public trust with official federal responsibilities.”
While not an extensively litigated element of the crime of bribery, the Court’s interpretation has resulted in a degree of ambiguity, which makes having a knowledgeable and experienced federal criminal attorney invaluable.
A third element of the crime of bribery speaks to the criminal intent, or mens rea. In order for a bribery charge to have merit, the defendant must have acted with corrupt intent. Contrary to the public official requirement, determining whether the defendant had criminal intent is often a hotly contested issue in a case. However, a simplified way of understanding criminal intent is by assessing whether or not there was a quid pro quo (i.e., if in fact something of value was given in exchange for the influence of an official act). Interconnected with this element is the scheme’s design.
Per Section 201, a defendant must have acted with corrupt intent to either a) “influence any official act”; b) “influence such public official or person who has been selected to be a public official to commit or aid in committing, or collude in, or allow, any fraud, or make opportunity for the commission of any fraud, on the United States”; or (c) “induce such public official or such person who has been selected to be a public official to do or omit to do any act in violation of the lawful duty of such official or person.”
Parallel provisions apply to the public official. This is another very important element your Virginia federal public corruption lawyer will argue against in court. Like all scienter requirements, it is difficult for the prosecution to prove, particularly if you have a skilled federal criminal attorney on your side.
Depending upon the value of what was given, the penalties for bribery can be severe. Moreover, a conviction can be devastating for a public official. Under Section 201, a person who gives or receives a bribe “shall be fined under this title of not more than three times the monetary equivalent of the thing of value, whichever is greater, or imprisoned for not more than fifteen years, or both, and may be disqualified from holding any office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States.”
Due to the gravity of the legal consequences, it is in a person’s best interest to retain competent representation. A Virginia federal criminal defense lawyer who has a wealth of knowledge and experience can be a tremendous asset in such circumstances.
The principle difference between bribery and gratuity is the existence of a quid pro quo. Bribery necessitates an agreement between two parties, in which there is an exchange of something of value for an official act. A gratuity charge under Section 201 does not require this element. Instead, gratuity simply requires that a person provide something of value to a federal public official, and that the thing of value is intended to serve as remuneration for an official act.
Thus, gift-giving is a simple way of understanding gratuities. There is no requirement of corrupt intent to influence an official act, but merely intent that the thing of value was given as compensation “for or because of any official act.”
Another difference between bribery and gratuity is timing. Bribery is solely focused on influencing future actions, whereas gratuity can either be forward or backward-looking. Importantly, the timing is in reference to the person’s intent, and not their actual giving of something of value.
The penalties for gratuity are less severe than bribery, which is logical due to the particular nature of each crime. Since there is no corrupt intent in gratuity, it is logical that the penalties are less extensive. A person convicted of gratuity under Section 201 will be fined, imprisoned for up to two years, or both.
The crime of extortion is covered in a different section of the United States Code than bribery and gratuity, namely 18 U.S.C. Section 1951 (more commonly known as The Hobbs Act). The statutory provision defines extortion as the following: “obtaining of property from another, with his consent, induced by wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear, or under color of official right.” Importantly, this statute applies to local, state, and federal officials, which makes it a much broader prosecutorial tool when compared to the bribery/gratuity statute.
A key difference between extortion and bribery/gratuity is that in the former there is an innocent victim, while in the latter, both parties are liable. Extortion can either be committed through use of force, violence, or fear, or under color of official right (i.e., using of official authority.) In both cases there is an element of coercion which is absent from the statutory language governing bribery and gratuity.
Extortion through the use of force, violence or fear can include either exploiting fear of physical or economic harm. The government must demonstrate that the defendant obtained the property from another person, and that the person’s consent was induced through either the use of force, violence or fear.
Extortion committed under the color of official right is when a public official “obtain[s] property from another, with his consent…under color of official right.” The courts have interpreted the statute to not require inducement, unlike extortion through force, violence, or fear.
In essence, the fact that the official is in public office is the coercive element on its face, and therefore, a public official need not engage in affirmative acts to induce the extortion. More information on extortion under color of official right and the Department of Justice’s charging policy can be found here.
The penalties for extortion are the same irrespective of whether or not the extortion was committed through actual or threatened force, violence, or fear, or under color of official right. According to 18 U.S.C. Section 1951, a person in violation of the statute will be subject to fines, not more than twenty years imprisonment, or both.
However, if force, violence, or fear were employed to induce the consent of the victim, the defendant may be charged with other underlying substantive offenses (e.g. assault). In order to fully understand the penalties it is best to seek out the assistance of an experienced federal criminal defense attorney.
Crimes of public corruption are prosecuted and investigated zealously. Therefore, if you are facing one of the aforementioned criminal charges it is in your best interest to level the playing field by retaining an experienced federal public corruption lawyer.
Your attorney will be the barrier between you and the government, which will allow for better protection of your rights. Moreover, your attorney will work to expose any wrongdoings committed by law enforcement or investigative agencies, and will seek to highlight flaws in the prosecution’s case.
If you are facing federal bribery, gratuities, or extortion charges in the Commonwealth of Virginia, contact a Virginia federal public corruption lawyer to discuss your legal options. Our attorneys offer a free initial consultation, and will devote all available resources to obtaining the best possible result in your case.
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