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Savage reports: "The Supreme Court is set to decide as soon as Monday whether to hear Siegelman's final appeal, which raises a far-reaching question: Is a campaign contribution a bribe if a politician agrees to do something in return, or is it to be expected that politicians will do favors for their biggest supporters?"

Former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman departs the Federal courthouse in Montgomery, Alabama, 11/02/11. (photo: AP)
Former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman departs the Federal courthouse in Montgomery, Alabama, 11/02/11. (photo: AP)



When Is a Campaign Donation a Bribe? Supreme Court May Decide

By David G. Savage, Los Angeles Times

03 June 12

 

Scores of former state attorneys general urge the justices to hear the appeal of convicted former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman.

ormer Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman was charged with bribery and sent to prison because, prosecutors said, a wealthy hospital executive gave him $500,000 in exchange for appointing him to a state hospital planning board.

But this half-million-dollar "bribe" did not enrich Siegelman. Instead, the disputed money was a contribution to help fund a statewide referendum on whether Alabama should have a state lottery to support education, a pet cause of the governor's.

The Supreme Court is set to decide as soon as Monday whether to hear Siegelman's final appeal, which raises a far-reaching question: Is a campaign contribution a bribe if a politician agrees to do something in return, or is it to be expected that politicians will do favors for their biggest supporters?

Prominent election law experts and more than 100 former state attorneys general have urged the justices to review Siegelman's case. They say the law in this area is hazy, with the result that aggressive prosecutors can bring charges against political enemies.

Siegelman was the rare Democrat who could win in Alabama. He had also won election as Alabama's secretary of state, attorney general and lieutenant governor. But his career ended when Republican-appointed U.S. attorneys charged him with corruption.

Siegelman's supporters noted that Leura Canary, the U.S. attorney in Montgomery, was the wife of William Canary, a prominent GOP operative and an ally of Karl Rove, PresidentGeorge W. Bush's chief political strategist.

The legal uncertainty over campaign contributions also figured in the trial of former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.). He was charged with campaign finance violations after two wealthy friends spent more than $900,000 helping hide his mistress. On Thursday, a jury acquitted him on one count and deadlocked on the remaining charges.

Washington lawyer Sam Heldman, who represents Siegelman, says the high court should rein in the use of bribery laws when politicians are not accused of taking money for themselves. "If campaign contributions are to be treated as bribes, Congress ought to write a law that says that," he said.

The federal bribery law makes it a crime for an official to "corruptly solicit, demand … or accept … anything of value of $5,000 or more" with the intent of being "influenced or rewarded." The law was aimed at officials who secretly take money for themselves, but prosecutors have used it against officials who use their offices to solicit campaign contributions.

But the line between legitimate political fundraising and criminal bribery is none too clear. "It's an extraordinarily difficult problem," said UCLA law professor Daniel H. Lowenstein, who has written extensively on the issue.

The Supreme Court has not ruled directly on when campaign contributions can be considered bribes, but in a related case, the justices said in 1991 that a state legislator could not be convicted of extorting contributions unless it was proved he made an "explicit promise" to introduce a bill in exchange for money.

The Alabama case began with Richard Scrushy, the high-flying founder of HealthSouth Corp., once the nation's largest chain of outpatient healthcare facilities. He had given hundreds of thousands dollars to support three Republican governors and had been named by each to sit on a state hospital planning board.

After Siegelman won election, aides to the two men met and reportedly agreed Scrushy could win favor with the new governor by giving a similar amount. Scrushy wrote a first check of $250,000 to support the lottery campaign, and a week later, Siegelman reappointed him to the hospital board.

But Scrushy's lavish lifestyle drew attention, and in 2003, the Justice Department accused him of a massive accounting fraud. He was indicted on 85 counts of fraud, conspiracy and money laundering. To the surprise of many, a jury in Birmingham acquitted him on all the counts in 2005.

A year later, however, prosecutors in Montgomery charged Scrushy and Siegelman with bribery, alleging the $500,000 payment to the lottery campaign fund bought a seat on the hospital board. In 2006, a jury acquitted the pair on most of the charges and convicted them of bribery. Though Siegelman was not convicted of taking money for himself, prosecutors asked for a 30-year prison sentence.

The judge gave both men seven years in prison, and they were taken away in shackles to begin serving their time. In 2008, after widespread complaints about Siegelman's trial, a U.S. appeals court freed him while he appealed.

The 113 former state attorneys general who supported his appeal said they worried about "arbitrary and abusive enforcement of the law," particularly when campaign contributions are deemed as bribes. Justice Department lawyers urged the court to turn down the appeal, saying the jury had heard the evidence and concluded the pair had made an illegal, explicit deal.

 

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+22 # Adoregon 2012-06-03 08:03
To think any person or entity would give a "substantial" sum of money to another person (or entity) without ANY expectation(s) beggars the imagination.

Try to imagine a situation you have encountered in your own experience where a large sum of money is given without ANY strings attached-- whether explicitly or tacitly. The only situations that come to my mind are true "gifts" given within a family, between close friends or for love. Outside that narrow realm, big money "given"/donated is always burdened by expectation or obligation.
To argue otherwise is profoundly disingenuous. It is, in fact, preposterous.
 
 
+23 # Pwarren 2012-06-03 08:08
There is no possible way for me to separate campaign contributions from bribes. The amounts are too stagering. The caditates are too pressed for money not to do exactly what they are bid. Why are we doing this rationalization dance over and over. The nation is in great distress. It needs men and women of impecable credentials of wisdom, integrety, honesty and coporation. Not bought and paid for babling shills.
What on earth can be done to stop this deteration of our country and the horror of a plutotracy.
 
 
+20 # Archie1954 2012-06-03 08:24
This case ia perfect example of using the law or one particular interpretation of it for alterior purposes. This Canary woman should be charged with obstruction of justice for pursuing a case for the express purpose of eliminating a Democratic candidate for the governorship. make no mistake that is exactly what she did. This also reinforces the belief that US justice is politicised to the point of corruption.
 
 
0 # truthbug 2012-06-03 08:43
"The law was aimed at officials who secretly take money for themselves..." Why is the author assuming this? Paying a politician for any favor, regardless where the money goes, must be punishable under law. The premise behind this article is that there are some good bribes. This is B.S., and the democrats-first members of this forum should ponder that.

I think a seven year incarceration for both Siegelman and Scrushy is both justified and necessary in order to maintain an effective democracy. It's only a small start, and the process should be applied throughout Congress and the Presidency.

We need two Constitutional Amendments: 1) that all elections be funded ONLY from public funds, and 2) that presidents and congress critters be limited to one term (perhaps longer than the existing one). These are two simple fixes for 90% of our nation's problems.
 
 
+7 # rockieball 2012-06-03 11:40
Add to that that they get healthcare only when they are in office and no lifetime pension afterward.
 
 
+5 # isafakir 2012-06-03 15:30
by your analysis every politician in the country is accepting bribes and every political contribution is a bribe. every political campaign is promises to constituents. big contributors routinely get appointed ambassadors and to boards and committees. Siegelman is no more guilty than any other governor. As for the trial, prosecutorial criminality is already a proven fact.
 
 
+6 # lmorneweck 2012-06-03 16:38
"He [Scrushy] had given hundreds of thousands dollars to support three Republican governors and had been named by each to sit on a state hospital planning board." But when he did the same thing with a Dem governor, it was suddenly wrong. If the incarceration were appropriate, it should have happened a few governors ago. As it stands, it walks and talks like a partisan attack on a successful Democrat.
 
 
+15 # Abigail 2012-06-03 09:03
I believe that the problem starts with the need for money, which was not as prevalent earlier in our history. What is the money needed for? Buying TV time for the most part. If we could eliminate the need fir money, we have a chance of getting our democracy back. In England, use of TV for electioneering is forbidden. We don't have to go that far. We could have a law that requires all TV stations to give an pre-established equal amount of time to all candidates for national office. If a candidate buys more time, then the selling channel must be required to give an equal amount of time to all his/her opponents free. The TV station does not own the frequency. We. the people do. The granting of the frequency is made by the FCC and one of the conditions is public service. If saving our democracy is not public service, then I don't know what is.
 
 
+1 # truthbug 2012-06-03 14:29
We need two Constitutional Amendments: 1) that all elections be funded ONLY from public funds, and 2) that presidents and congress critters be limited to one term (perhaps longer than the existing one). These are two simple fixes for 90% of our nation's problems. Spread the good word!
 
 
0 # akh752 2012-06-06 06:59
I dislike term limits. Some people enjoy governance and are good at it. They should be able to remain in office as long as the voters support them.
 
 
+5 # Doll 2012-06-03 11:27
So what about the three Republican governers that he gave money to for a seat on a hospital board - which they gave him? Were they ever prosecuted?

This is in the article. If you missed it go back and reread it.
 
 
+5 # rockieball 2012-06-03 11:39
Problem is look at the court itself, especially Thomas. Then tell me that even though they are nominate for life that maybe they themselves have no been already bribed.
 
 
+8 # Working Class 2012-06-03 11:58
Will Rogers had it pegged decades ago when he said, "We have the best government money can buy". Which brings me to another sobering qoute "We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."
Justice Louis Brandeis
 
 
-10 # truthbug 2012-06-03 14:31
All well for Brandeis, though keep in mind he was a rabid Zionist.
 
 
+8 # Granny Weatherwax 2012-06-03 12:54
GET
MONEY
OUT
OF
POLITICS
PERIOD
 
 
+10 # zinzinzor 2012-06-03 13:02
We can expect no justice from the 5 SCOTUS injustices.
 
 
+7 # Stephanie Remington 2012-06-03 14:00
Corporate donations ARE bribes. Not sometimes. Not usually. Always.

The Supreme Court may acknowledge or deny this, but no amount of verbiage will further "clarify" what is already crystal clear.
 
 
+1 # Gere 2012-06-04 07:02
Dito Dito Stephanie Remington. How could a Board of Directors approve any political contribution or a CEO make a decision to fund a political campaign and remain a CEO if the money does not go towards a profitable outcome for the bribe? My question is how can we make the Supreme Court reverse its probably worst and most destructive decision in American History when it is made up of Justices selected by two parties that both benefit from such a decision? Plug that leak and we really slow down the sinking of the American Dream Ship in the sea of Plutocracy.
 
 
+4 # freeportguy 2012-06-03 14:02
Cntraty to Republicans, I do NOT make a decision depending on WHO got the money, GOPer or Democrat.

Time to remove the "For Sale" sign in front of election and governmental offices...
 
 
+3 # zauche 2012-06-03 20:20
It's unlikely that the "average citizen" would make a $5,000 contribution, without the expectation of something in return. The most I've ever donated to a campaign is $100, which strikes me as an appropriate amount to give without concern that the politician might feel obliged to do anything more than say "Thank you" for the check.
 
 
+1 # carolsj 2012-06-04 13:47
The average citizen makes a contribution because he supports what a candidate stands for and trusts them to keep their word. There is no expectation of a specific favor except to do their job honestly. If this relationship is subverted by a huge donation/bribe, it is a breach of trust. That's why no one trusts politicians.
 
 
+3 # RMDC 2012-06-04 04:16
The US election system is broken and terribly corrupt. Good people really don't have a chance in the election system we now have. I know if I were running for a public office and some slimy lobbiest or lawyer for a corporation approached me and talked about contributing a large sum of money to some project I supported, I would consider that a bribe and would throw the guy of out my office.

The USG is pretty much in the pocket of the bribers. I think everyone knows that, but few are ready to admit it as an absolute judgment on the USG. The USG has no legitimacy whatever.
 
 
+1 # carolsj 2012-06-04 13:52
A lot of people have given up on voting because you can't trust what any politicians are saying they will or won't do. It's really hard to decide who to vote for, because you can't trust the ads, fliers or even "unbiased" media. All of the mail fliers I received went straight into the trash. They could have saved their money. The only good thing about them is that they helped keep the post office busy.
 
 
+2 # Texan 4 Peace 2012-06-04 14:07
Glad to see Seigelmann's case back in the news. This was a put-up job; as "the rare Democrat who could win in Alabama," he was a stumbling block for the Republican juggernaut. The man has already spent years in prison for what was clearly a vindictive, politically-mot ivated prosecution. And in the meanwhile, Cheney met with oil company execs to write energy policy and Republican congressmen submit bills with ALEC's letter head on it. The hypocrisy is staggering.
 

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