Thursday, August 02, 2007

What is the appropriate punishment for bribery?


With two high profile Texas cases of bribery by military contractors in the news, I've been thinking recently about what is the appropriate sentence for bribery? On the one hand it's a nonviolent offense. On the other, especially in the cases of bribes to government officials by military contractors, the crime assumes a gravity that borders on treasonous viewed in a certain light.

Googling around on the subject I found Nelson Schwartz focused on these very questions recently in the New York Times last month. Reacting to news that a Chinese official was executed for taking bribes, Schwartz surveyed various historical bribery punishments as a reference point: "throughout history," he wrote, "bribery has often been thought of as a crime that could harm the state — thus worthy of extreme punishment. Severe sanctions for bribe-taking have a long and bloody history."

Among various bribery punishments throughout history:
  • Death penalty
  • Stripped of citizenship and exiled
  • Blinding
  • Castration
  • Deportation
  • Flogging
  • Seizure of assets
  • Choice of jail or paying a fine (colonial America).
Perhaps the oddest punishment of the lot was finding religion: "In Constantinople under Emperor Justinian ... John the Cappadocian, who supplied the emperor’s army with tainted food, was publicly flogged and then forced to become an Orthodox priest."

And in ancient Rome, Schwartz finds, they took a "lenient approach." "Tiberias said he wanted his 'sheep shorn, not flayed,' meaning that while citizens might have to keep paying, local rulers shouldn’t be excessively greedy when demanding payments."

In Texas today, bribery is a second degree felony punishable by 2-20 years in prison. Here are the federal sentencing guidelines related to bribery.

I was also struck by Schwartz's article that bribe taking appears to have historically received more harsh punishment than offering bribes. That tradition apparently continues today, as we see mounting prosecutions against bribe taking servicemen and their families while the corporations who bribed them continue to do business with the US government. That's a punishment tradition I'd like to see corrected - the company giving the bribe, to me, is at least as culpable as the soldier who takes it, arguably more so.

What do you think is the appropriate punishment for bribe taking? And what do you think should happen to corporations that offered these bribes and allegedly received lucrative contracts in return?

UPDATE - YIKES! (Not for the faint of heart!) Despite some dark and perhaps inappropriate humor in the comments regarding the relative benefits of "flogging" as a punishment, this afternoon I ran across this post from the Pennsylvania Correctional Forum, which is the blog of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. It links to a video depicting an actual flogging - a caning, to be precise - in Malaysia, for what crime I do not know. The punishment is used for drug crimes, rape, and illegal entry into the country. Jokes in poor taste aside, only a coward would strap someone down and beat them, and when the state does it, it's clearly an abuse.

: On the Texas DA's User Forum Williamson County DA John Bradley writes:
For an interesting opinion on whether the search of Congressman Jefferson's office violated the Speech and Debate Clause of the U.S. Constitution, click here.

The issue is a bit more complex than has been revealed in the media (shocking). And, it is also not so clear that the FBI won't get to use some of the information that was obtained in the search. For example, the exclusionary rule only applies to the Fourth Amendment, which was not yet raised.

Anyway, from other reports, it appears the FBI has independent evidence of Jefferson's guilt for bribery (like the cash found in his freezer). We shall see.


Anonymous said...

You're right, it's a nonviolent offense so why make them do prison time? I'm down with (public) flogging and seizure of assets, but no incarceration.

That's how I feel about most corporate crime. I'd rather see Richard Scrushy publicly beaten, humiliated and stripped of his last dime than pay for his room and board in Beaumont for however long. Save prison for the killers and such.

Anonymous said...

I agree that whatever additional punishments are piled on, "flogging" is in order.

dannoynted1 said...

Enron was a non violent is smoking pot.

yet one deserves life in prison and it ain't the latter!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

For those flogging fans out there, I have to admit that's an incarceration alternative that's seldom considered. :)

I know there's that whole 8th amendment thing, but I also agree I'd rather see Scrushy and the bribe participants taste the sting of the lash and lose all their money rather than spring for their room and board. And I'm sure they'd rather receive a flogging than prison time.

Is it time for corporal punishment to make a comeback? In this New-Agey era where people don't even spank their kids, I doubt it'd fly. (You also can't flog a corporation, more's the pity.) But it's a satisfying image to contemplate!

JT Barrie said...

I suggested having the option of a privately funded "stocks show" for Timothy McVeigh with proceeds used to compensate victims. Have him tour the nation's malls with paying people allowed to pelt his sorry body with tomatoes and other nonlethal objects.
A similar punishment should be devised for these people who sell out taxpayer interests for money. Since the victims are taxpayers money should be returned to the treasury or used in tax rebates. How many sadistic citizens would love to pay for the opportunity to pelt some sleazeball politician for selling out his country? Is this a viable source of income for our government?

Anonymous said...

Bribery of government officials should be a severe crime, both for the briber and the bribee. Probably more so for the bribee who is betraying public trust. Where the briber is a corporate entity, how about the death penalty for the corporation. Take away its power to do business!

jdgalt said...

I'd say it depends very much on what the official is being asked to do in return for the bribe. I divide all bribery into three cases.

1) There are a lot of places in the world -- and some here in the US -- where you have to bribe a cop just to leave you alone when you've done nothing wrong. In that case I can't see charging the bribe payer with anything; in effect the bribe amounts to robbery by the recipient. Similarly, if you have to bribe an official to prevent bureaucrats from denying you a license, permit, or benefit that you're really already entitled to, you've done no wrong by paying the bribe.

2) If you're paying the bribe to get out of a punishment you deserve, or to receive a reward (such as a special-interest tax or tax loophole) that you don't deserve, the law should punish you exactly as if you'd obtained the same reward by lying (thus, if you paid a bribe to escape a punishment or to get an undeserved license, you'd be punished as if for perjury; if you paid a bribe to get a financial benefit, you'd be punished as if for fraud in the same amount).

3) If you paid a bribe to cause something bad to happen to someone else, you should be punished as if you'd done the bad thing yourself without benefit of a badge.

In cases 2) and 3) the recipient should go on trial along with the bribe payer (so no more possibility of convicting the payer while acquitting the recipient, unless it was an Abscam type sting), and the recipient should always suffer a higher penalty since he is violating a trust. The penalty for the recipient should include the loss of any public office, immediately and for life.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

JDG, in which of those categories would you place a military contractor bribing a mid-level Army procurement officer?

Anonymous said...

Many years ago (probably in the 1950's) Reader's Digest (surprise!) had an article on public flogging in the United States. As I dimly recall the article, it referenced 3 then alive adult men who had been flogged (albeit, that may not have been the official term)in the US (again dimly remembered, one of the states which still had the penalty on the books was Maryland and/or Delaware). One man turned his life around, noting he became aware that you couldn't treat a dog that way, so he realized he had stooped to status below that of a dog.
(my apologies to your readers, I was unable to find the specific article)
Regarding the bribery issue I am of a mixed mind: as we have seen in the few cases it has occurred, taking away the assets and the right to do business of the company can punish so many innocents who were not involved. Who and how to punish? I offer the book and HBO movie "The Pentagon Wars" that related the story of Pentagon procurement staff apparently taking bribes (actual or in the form of future employment) to approve a vehicle that was so unsafe it would make a deathtrap a preferable alternative. I can accept that the public employee, military or civilian, has a public trust responsibility (next time a guard slips wire cutters to the prisoners or sells C4 to that guy with the table cloth around his head (not pc, but that is how he will be snown in the movie) or you bury what is left of one of our soldiers who "went to war with what you got.")
Seems to come down to flogging for the company man/woman/men/women... right after all personal assets are confiscated (and those of Mrs. Lay too)... is first born child going too far?
There is one exception; find a connection with a Texas legislator.... add castration, drawing and quartering (only if you can find a way to keep him alive afterwards), salt, and Bubba for a roommate in prison.....