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Bribery and Extortion

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
As a criminology professor, one of the biggest challenges I face is explaining the difference between similar yet distinct criminal offenses. When students struggle, I usually help them with criminal law hypotheticals. For example, when explaining the difference between bribery and extortion, I tell them to imagine the following scenario: "A man is pulled over by a State Trooper for driving 100 miles per hour. As the Trooper approaches and asks for his wallet, the man pulls out a $100 bill and says 'I bet you $100 that you're going to give me a ticket.' The Trooper smiles, takes the bill, and says 'Nope, you're wrong.'"

After students correctly conclude that the above scenario constitutes bribery, I give them this scenario: "A different man is pulled over by a State Trooper for driving 100 miles per hour. As he approaches the vehicle and asks for the man's wallet, the Trooper looks at him and says 'I bet you $100 that you're not going to get a ticket today.' The driver smiles, takes out a bill, and says 'I'll take that bet.' The Trooper takes the bill, says 'Sorry, you lose,' and walks away."

That second scenario is extortion - as opposed to bribery - because the communication was initiated by the officer and because it contained an implicit threat. Knowing this distinction is important for criminology students. It is also important for political science students as it helps foster a greater understanding of how Washington lawmaking really works. This reality is in stark contrast to the popular image conveyed by politicians and echoed in the popular press.

Observers of beltway politics have long been aware of the fact that far more laws are written than are actually passed. But these observers too often view this failure to pass bills as incompetence. Nothing could be further from the truth. By merely threatening to pass laws that increase the size of government, the drafters encourage lobbying efforts aimed at defeating them. Each law is a looming threat to some industry - sometimes multiple industries - and can be rebuffed by campaign contributions from these wealthy lobbies. This means that each time a bill is passed a tool for fundraising is removed. Or, to put it more bluntly, an opportunity for extortion is foreclosed.

People often have difficulty understanding why a corporation will give heavily to both candidates in an election or why they will donate to candidates who face no opposition. Were extortion not prevalent in politics, such engrained patterns would not exist. Wall Street firms don't donate to the anti-capitalist candidate because they like him. They donate to his campaign because they fear him and think he might actually win regardless of who they actually support.

Of course, political extortion can be subtle. There is an implicit threat whenever congress passes laws so complex that they can only be understood by those who wrote them. This explains why so many of those who work as lawmakers eventually leave their positions to become consultants in the private sector. The threat of ignoring these consultants is subtle but real. When they offer their services, they are essentially saying "You may or may not be breaking the law. Pay me for my services and I'll give you the answer."

If you don't think the consulting racket rises to the level of extortion then just take a quick look at the definition of extortion from Blackstone’s Law Dictionary. It defines extortion as "an abuse of public justice, which consists in any officer's unlawfully taking, by color of his office, from any man, any money or thing of value, that is not due to him, or more than is due, or before it is due."

Of course, sometimes extortion isn't so subtle. Richard Nixon was known for specifically tying the activities of the Department of Justice (DOJ) to his fundraising activities. The Obama administration does the same thing. Businesses are often told they are being investigated for possible criminal conduct by the DOJ. Next they are asked to donate or, even worse, told to hire "consultants" to assist them in making the problem go away.

The consultant extortion racket has reached unprecedented proportions in the current administration. After the 2008 election, half a dozen senior DOJ positions went to individuals who had been campaign bundlers for Barack Obama. This dirty half-dozen included Eric Holder and others who have dealt directly with both civil and criminal prosecutions.

But the racket extends far beyond the halls of the DOJ. Anita Dunn served as Obama's communications director during the president's first term. During her time in the White House she was an outspoken critic of the hedge fund industry. Unsurprisingly, she became a consultant upon leaving the White House. The firm she joined specializes in "corporate communications." Also unsurprisingly, she helped the firm craft a proposal that went to hedge funds for the ostensible purpose of helping them boost their image. The proposal offered to develop a "paid media" campaign that would "raise awareness about the positive role that hedge funds play in the American economy."

Unbelievable, isn’t it? Dunn organizes an attack against an industry by leveraging her power as a public official. Then she offers to ward off the attack she created by using her influence as a paid "consultant." This is what is known among mobsters as a willfully and deliberately planned protection racket. As usual, what appears to be improper private influence from the outside is an outgrowth of the abuse of public justice from the inside.

To be continued ...

Author's Note: this column was written with information from only one source on the topic. Please see
Extortion by Peter Schweizer or pick up your own copy here.

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