"[A] democracy is effective only if the people have faith in those who govern, and that faith is bound to be shattered when high officials and their appointees engage in activities which arouse suspicions of malfeasance and corruption." So wrote Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren back in 1961, in the case United States v. Miss. Valley Generating Co. Indeed, democracy in the United States has been tested by corrupt politicians throughout our nation's history.
While public offices have been bought and sold on the theory of "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours," there are federal laws in place to prevent bribery of politicians. Criminal charges may be the result. Specifically, federal law explicitly prohibits soliciting or accepting money to obtain public office in the United States.
Below you'll find key information on situations where individuals may attempt to buy influence with public officials and other decision-makers to obtain public office, including a brief history of the law and where to go for more information.
History of Public Corruption Laws
There's a long history of safeguarding against corruption of public officials in the United States dating back to our Founding Fathers and the U.S. Constitution. Article Four of the U.S. Constitution provides that "[t]he United States shall guarantee to every State in the Union a Republican Form of Government." In guaranteeing the "Republican Form of Government," early lawmakers made sure to provide a process for impeachment in the Constitution for the President, Vice President, and cabinet secretaries, and other executive officers, as well as judges. Congress continued to pass laws to protect public confidence in their officials through bribery statutes, mail fraud laws, and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) in 1977.
In more recent history, we saw allegations of public corruption under the Obama administration in 2010. Former Navy Adm. Joe Sestak, then-candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, claimed he was offered a high-ranking appointment in the president's administration in exchange for dropping out of the contentious senate race with Arlen Specter. Specter was bidding for a sixth term in the Senate and, according to sources, the administration was eager to clear the field of any primary opponents. Sestak never did drop out and the case was never charged, despite California GOP Rep. Darrell Issa's call for the appointment of a special prosecutor to examine the incident.
Soliciting or Accepting Money for Public Office Overview
Let's discuss the federal law against soliciting or accepting money for public office more specifically. Under 18 U.S.C. § 211 these actions can lead to federal criminal charges:
Whoever solicits or receives, either as a political contribution, or for personal emolument, any money or thing of value, in consideration of the promise of support or use of influence in obtaining for any person any appointive office or place under the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.
Whoever solicits or receives any thing of value in consideration of aiding a person to obtain employment under the United States either by referring his name to an executive department or agency of the United States or by requiring the payment of a fee because such person has secured such employment shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.
Let's visualize this scenario a little further. Imagine there was a candidate for California State Senate. She accepts a campaign contribution from a wealthy donor in exchange for the promise that she'll appoint the donor to the office of Postmaster, a federal position, should she get elected. The candidate is elected as a Senator and follows through on her promise to the donor. The donor is appointed Postmaster. Here we have all the elements of the crime:
If a person is successfully prosecuted under this law, they can expect to receive up to one year imprisonment, a fine, or both.
Soliciting or Accepting Money to Obtain Public Office: Related Resources
Charged with a Federal Crime? Get Legal Help
Federal crimes can carry serious consequences. While you may not be charged with soliciting or accepting money to obtain a public office, there are an array of federal crimes that can land you in prison for years if you don’t have a solid defense. If you or someone you know has been charged in federal court, it may be a good idea to get in touch with a local criminal defense attorney to discuss your specific situation and get help crafting an effective defense.