Selling Access: President Trump, Corruption, and the Legacy of Bob McDonnell

President Donald Trump took office last week amid a storm of controversy over ethics and potential conflicts of interest. There are widespread concerns about possible corruption in the Trump administration. A key focus has been the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which forbids federal officials to accept any payments or gifts from foreign governments. Trump’s extensive international business holdings appear to make violations of that clause almost inevitable. (I wrote last November about the Emoluments Clause and how it relates to bribery; you can find that post here.)

Trump recently did announce some steps to transfer control of his businesses to his sons, although it is unclear to what extent that has actually taken place. The head of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, pronounced these efforts wholly inadequate  – and promptly found himself summoned to Capitol Hill to explain his temerity to a Congressional committee. Then this past Monday a public watchdog group and several prominent law professors filed a lawsuit asking a federal court to rule that the new president is already violating the Emoluments Clause.

But the Emoluments Clause is only one of the conflict of interest issues surrounding President Trump. A related ethical concern is the potential for access to the President and his administration to be used as a bargaining chip in his private business dealings. Businesses or governments could secretly agree to provide benefits to Trump-owned businesses in exchange for a private audience with the President or other Executive Branch officials, where they could lobby for government actions that would benefit them. The breadth of the President’s business holdings — and his refusal to divest himself of those holdings – creates an unprecedented risk of such conflicts.

Trump and his family have already demonstrated what might charitably be called a lack of sensitivity to the ethical issues that surround selling access to the White House. In December a nonprofit where Trump’s sons were registered as directors promoted an inaugural event called “Opening Day,” supposedly to benefit unnamed charities related to conservation. It offered donors of $1 million attendance at a private reception with the President-elect, as well as a four-day hunting or fishing excursion with one of his sons. In another incident, a charitable group ran an on-line auction of an opportunity to have coffee with Trump’s daughter Ivanka. The bidding was above $70,000 before the effort was shut down following media inquiries.

Even though the money from such events may go to charity, the buyer’s motives are not necessarily charitable. For example, the high bidder in the auction for coffee with Ms. Trump told the New York Times that he wanted to urge her to persuade her father not to go too far in restricting immigration. Another bidder hoped to speak to her about the Trump administration’s relationship with the Turkish government.

These efforts to sell access to the President and his family raised ethical red flags for a simple reason: access is valuable. Time on any senior government official’s schedule is a scarce commodity. Those able to meet personally with that official (or his family) have an advantage generally unavailable to ordinary citizens: the ability to directly and privately advocate for their own interests. Attempts to cash in on access to government officials – even for charitable causes – are deemed inappropriate because time with those who are supposed to serve all citizens should not be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

But public charity sales of access are just the tip of the potential ethics iceberg. Of far greater concern are transactions that could take place entirely out of public view. For example, imagine this hypothetical: a foreign company is negotiating some kind of deal with a Trump organization business. The company’s officers make it known that they will offer a sweetheart deal at substantial savings if, in exchange, Trump sets up a meeting for them with the Secretary of Commerce to discuss removing certain import restrictions that apply to the company’s products. (Note that because this hypo involves a private company, not a foreign government, the Emoluments Clause would not apply.)

Trump agrees and the deal goes through. Because it involves two private companies, it is not publicly disclosed. Trump then calls the Secretary of Commerce and says, “These guys are friends of mine, I’d like you to meet with them and hear what they have to say about these import sanctions.” Trump doesn’t tell the Secretary about the art of his deal with the company. He also doesn’t tell the Secretary how to decide the question, but the Secretary is no dummy and can read between the lines to see what would please the boss. The meeting happens, the import restrictions are lifted, both sides are happy, and the country is none the wiser.

Remarkable as it may seem, if such a scheme took place it would not violate federal bribery law. And for that, President Trump can thank the former Governor of Virginia – and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Image of Bob McDonnell, former governor of Virginia, whose case paved the way for corruption in the Trump administration

Access for Sale: McDonnell v. United States

Regular readers know that I’ve written a number of posts about McDonnellhere, here, and here, for example – that provide more details about the case. In brief, former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife Maureen were prosecuted for essentially selling access to Virginia government officials. Businessman Jonnie Williams was interested in having Virginia universities conduct research on his company’s dietary supplement Anatabloc. Over a two-year period he gave the McDonnells a variety of personal gifts and loans worth more than $170,000.

In exchange, the McDonnells agreed to help promote Anatabloc within the Virginia government. Governor McDonnell arranged meetings for Williams with various government health officials and researchers so Williams could make his pitch. He also held a product launch event for Anatabloc at the Governor’s mansion, attended by state health officials and other government employees.

The McDonnells were found guilty of multiple counts of corruption following a jury trial, and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld their convictions. But last June the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed, holding that the actions taken by McDonnell on Williams’ behalf were too inconsequential to support a bribery conviction.

The Supreme Court held that simply arranging a meeting, making a phone call, or holding an event did not constitute an “official act” under federal bribery law. An official act, the Court said, requires the public official to take some more substantive steps to resolve a particular question or matter that may be pending before the government, or to pressure another official to do so. Preliminary actions or political courtesies such as arranging a meeting, the Court held, do not rise to that level.

After McDonnell, merely arranging access to government officials may not form the basis of a corruption conviction, even in extreme circumstances. For example, a governor could establish a policy whereby anyone who wanted to meet with a member of his administration had to pay the governor $10,000 to arrange the meeting. Similarly, a company could offer millions of dollars in secret benefits or concessions to a Trump business in exchange for a private dinner with the President or meeting with a Cabinet official. Neither arrangement would violate federal bribery law.

Bribery laws aim to prevent government officials from using their public office to enrich themselves by offering favorable treatment to those willing to pay. Determining whether such a corrupt arrangement exists requires looking at the entire agreement – the quid, the pro, and the quo – and not just focusing on a single side of the equation. The McDonnell decision, through its myopic focus on the meaning of “official act,” effectively took off the table an entire area of public corruption law: the sale of access to government officials.

Image of a bribe taking place - bribery is a key corruption offense

Not All Access is Created Equal

Those familiar with the ways of Washington may observe that access is always up for sale to some extent. It’s just a reality of politics. Large campaign or PAC donors are regularly treated to private events with public officials. For example, large donors to the Presidential Inaugural last week were rewarded with access in the form of a candlelight dinner with Trump and Vice-President Pence at Washington’s Union Station.

This is part of what motivated the Supreme Court in McDonnell. The Court was concerned that if providing access could support a bribery conviction, then many routine interactions with supporters and political courtesies might end up being prosecuted. But again, this mistakenly focuses only on one side of the equation. It’s true that arranging a meeting may be an innocent political courtesy, just as voting on a bill may be a routine political act. But if either is done in direct exchange for a corrupt, secret gift that enriches the politician, that is neither innocent nor routine.

In deciding whether a sale of access might be corrupt, one should consider the whole picture. For example, donations to campaigns take place within a legal framework that generally involves at least some public disclosure and contribution limits. The public is able to see who is supporting the official and to what extent, and to judge the official’s actions accordingly. Sunlight is the best antidote for corruption.

Our current campaign finance system, whatever its flaws, is legal. Contributions made within the framework of that system come with almost a presumption of regularity, and are on a completely different footing from secret, undisclosed gifts. Access may be provided after such contributions, but proving corrupt intent in a case involving lawful contributions will be extremely difficult.

Another distinction is the type of access provided. There’s a big difference between attending a dinner or reception with a few hundred other donors (even by candlelight) and a one-on-one private meeting with an official. The former is more likely to be just a social event where the donors enjoy simply being in the presence of power and perhaps get a chance for a selfie; that is not a setting conducive to corrupt, secret deals.

But the most crucial factor on the quid side of the analysis can be summed up in the immortal words of Watergate’s Deep Throat: follow the money. Campaign contributions go to the campaign, a separate legal entity, as do donations for things such as PACs or Inaugural events. The public official is benefitting indirectly, to be sure, but the support is directed more at the office and campaign and not to line the official’s own pockets.

Contrast this with what Jonnie Williams gave to the McDonnells – secret gifts that enriched the family personally. These were not campaign contributions or other legitimate donations. Rolex watches, New York shopping sprees, and sweetheart loans do not show up on campaign finance reports, are not subject to any legal limits, and personally enrich the official. Unlike routine campaign or PAC contributions, secret gifts to a politician have no legitimate or legally recognized purpose and automatically have the whiff of corruption about them.

The point of all this is simply that it should not be enough to say, “Well, all he did was arrange a meeting, so there can be no corruption.” All of the circumstances surrounding any alleged deal have to be examined. The secret sale of access to public officials causes the exact harm that laws against bribery are intended to prevent: politicians enriching themselves by handing out favors only to those willing to pay. Unfortunately, the McDonnell decision has created a safe harbor for just that kind of corruption.

The Need for Divestiture

Some might suggest this is not a serious problem because there are other potential controls besides the criminal law. For example, the attempts to sell access for charitable causes that I mentioned at the top of this article were exposed and then cancelled. Perhaps the voters and the media can police any such misconduct and shame officials into proper behavior. Ultimately, unhappy voters can always express their displeasure at the ballot box.

But the problem with relying on public pressure and media scrutiny to police such actions is that it assumes full access to information. Most corruption takes place in secret. Although the charitable fundraising efforts were necessarily public, backdoor deals are not. Corruption and conflicts of interest can be very difficult to detect. This is why divestiture of assets that pose a potential conflict is so important: it removes even the possibility of using the power of one’s office to profit off of those assets.

The scenarios outlined here are hypothetical, of course. But the potential for this President to enrich himself and his family through the power of his office is truly extraordinary. With a green light from the Supreme Court, Trump and his family are free to use access to Washington power as a bargaining chip in his private business dealings, taking comfort in the fact that even if their actions come to light, they will not be unlawful.

Yet another way in which the Trump presidency is unprecedented.

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White Collar Crime, Prosecutorial Discretion, and the Supreme Court

Does the Supreme Court still believe in prosecutorial discretion? A string of cases over the past few years has to make you wonder.

Prosecutorial discretion – the power to decide whether to bring criminal charges, who to charge, what crimes to charge, and how ultimately to resolve the case – is a fundamental component of the criminal justice system. The legislature enacts the laws but the executive branch enforces them, which includes making judgments about when and how to bring a criminal case.

On the macro level, this means setting national and local law enforcement priorities and making decisions about the deployment of finite prosecutorial resources. Different administrations at different times have declared areas such as health care fraud, narcotics, illegal immigration, or terrorism to be top priorities and have allocated resources accordingly. Such decisions necessarily mean other areas will not receive as much attention; a dollar spent fighting terrorism is a dollar that can’t be spent investigating mortgage fraud.

On the micro level, prosecutorial discretion involves deciding whether to pursue criminal charges in a given case and what charges to pursue. Factors such as the nature of the offense, strength of the evidence, the nature and extent of any harm, adequacy of other potential remedies, any mitigating circumstances or remedial efforts by the accused, and prosecutorial resources and priorities all may come into play.

For federal prosecutors, policies governing how they should exercise this discretion are set forth in the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual, and in particular in the Principles of Federal Prosecution. The Principles contain detailed guidance concerning when to bring charges, what kind of charges to bring, and how to handle criminal cases, in order to “promote the reasoned exercise of prosecutorial discretion by attorneys for the government.” USAM 9-27.110.

doj seal

Prosecutorial Discretion and White Collar Crime

Prosecutorial discretion is particularly important in white collar crime. With non-white collar, or “street” crimes, the parameters of the offense tend to be more clearly defined and charging decisions often are more black and white. If there is a body on the street with nine bullets in it, you pretty clearly have a homicide. If authorities can identify who did it, that person will almost certainly be charged. The prosecutor is not likely to say, “Due to our limited resources and other priorities, we’ll take a pass on this one and let the victim’s family file a civil suit instead” – not if the prosecutor wants to keep her job, anyway.

But white collar crime is full of gray areas. White collar prosecutors deal with sometimes nebulous concepts such as “fraud” and “corruption,” and white collar statutes are written in notoriously broad and general terms. As a result, it often falls much more to the prosecutor to determine whether something is a crime at all and to decide what kind of conduct merits a prosecution.

For example, suppose a hedge fund goes belly-up, and the investors who lost their money claim they were misled about their investment. Was it fraud, or was it merely aggressive – maybe even sleazy – sales tactics followed by incompetence, mismanagement, or just bad luck? Unlike a homicide, robbery, or drug case, at the outset it may not be clear that a crime has been committed. A prosecutor might well conclude, “If I investigated this for two years, perhaps at the end I would have a provable criminal fraud case – but perhaps not. Given my resources and priorities, I’m going to focus on other cases and let the SEC and private plaintiffs pursue civil and administrative penalties in this one.”

Given these potential gray areas, what’s the best way to deter and prosecute white collar crime? Imagine two different regimes. In System #1, Congress drafts broad statutes that proscribe conduct such as fraud in general terms, in order to encompass as much potentially criminal conduct as possible. It is left to the Executive Branch, through prosecutors, to enforce those statutes and determine which cases to pursue – with that discretion tempered, of course, by the oversight of the courts.

In System #2, Congress tries to write very precise and detailed statutes that are as specific as possible in defining the prohibited conduct. Such white collar statutes would leave fewer gray areas and less room for prosecutorial discretion – in other words, they would be more like street crimes. The downside of such a system would be that it necessarily creates loopholes: the more precisely you define criminal concepts like fraud, the greater the opportunity for individuals engaged in what should be criminal conduct to skirt the law’s prohibitions.

Historically, white collar criminal law has been closer to System #1: broad statutes prohibit things like fraud or corruption, and prosecutors are entrusted to exercise their discretion to determine how to apply those laws. But in a series of decisions over the past few years, the Supreme Court has signaled it is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with such a system. These decisions have limited several significant white collar statutes, moving us closer to System #2 – although with laws narrowed by the Court rather than by Congress. In the process, the Court has removed discretion from the hands of prosecutors while also making it more difficult to prosecute some criminal conduct.

The Supreme Court Limits Prosecutorial Discretion

The first such case was Skilling v. United States in 2010. Skilling involved the proper interpretation of 18 U.S.C. § 1346, which prohibits schemes to deprive another of the “intangible right of honest services.” Honest services fraud, a species of mail and wire fraud, has been around for decades. Most cases of honest services fraud have involved relatively straightforward allegations of corruption such as bribery, kickbacks, and conflicts of interest.

But prosecutors in some cases stretched the boundaries of the theory, using honest services fraud to prosecute, for example, a university professor who helped students plagiarize work to obtain degrees to which they were not entitled; an IRS employee who improperly browsed through certain tax returns but did nothing with the information; state officials who awarded public sector jobs based on political patronage; and a state official who failed to disclose a potential conflict of interest when state law did not require disclosure. Some of these schemes seemed wrong or dishonest but were far from traditional criminal corruption. The confusion over what actually qualified as a deprivation of honest services led Justice Scalia to argue in 2009 that the law was in a state of “chaos.”

The Supreme Court finally attempted to bring some order out of this chaos in Skilling. The defendant, former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling, argued that the honest services statute should be struck down as unconstitutionally vague, but the Court disagreed. Instead, it limited the law to what it deemed the core of honest services fraud: cases involving bribery and kickbacks.

The holding in Skilling dramatically narrowed the scope of honest services fraud. This successfully removed prosecutors’ ability to use the theory in innovative ways to charge more unusual schemes. But the limitation also created safe harbors for certain conduct, such as self-dealing by elected officials, that is plainly corrupt but may no longer be charged as a violation of honest services.

In 2014, the Supreme Court decided Bond v. United States. (Although not really a white collar case, Bond is instructive as part of the same trend at the Court.) In Bond a jilted wife tried to injure her husband’s lover by sprinkling some caustic chemicals on her mailbox and doorknob. The chemicals caused only a slight skin irritation on the woman’s thumb that was easily treated with cold water. Federal prosecutors subsequently charged Bond using a felony statute that prohibits the use of chemical weapons and carries a penalty of “any term of years” in prison.

The Court ultimately held that the statute did not apply to Bond’s conduct. But an undercurrent of the case was the Court’s obvious concern over the government’s decision to apply a federal law aimed at preventing the horrors of chemical warfare to such a trivial incident. During oral argument, Justice Kennedy told the Solicitor General that it “seems unimaginable that you would bring this prosecution.” Justice Alito remarked, “If you told ordinary people that you were going to prosecute Ms. Bond for using a chemical weapon, they would be flabbergasted.”

This trend continued in 2015 with Yates v. United States. Yates was a commercial fisherman working in the Gulf of Mexico. A fish and wildlife officer boarded his boat to conduct a routine inspection and ended up citing him for having several dozen red grouper on board that were slightly smaller than the legal limit – a civil violation. The officer told Yates to keep the fish until he returned to port, where they would be seized and destroyed. Once the officer left his boat, however, Yates instructed a crew member to throw the undersized fish overboard and replace them with larger ones.

When this ultimately came to light, prosecutors charged Yates with three crimes including obstruction of justice under 18 U.S.C. § 1519, a twenty-year felony. That law prohibits the destruction of “tangible objects” in an effort to obstruct a federal investigation. Captain Yates argued before the Supreme Court that fish were not “tangible objects” within the meaning of this statute. The Court ultimately ruled in his favor, but only by adopting what I believe was an unnatural and strained interpretation of the law.

But Yates is actually more significant for what it revealed about the Court’s views on prosecutorial discretion and charging decisions. During oral argument, the Justices were clearly disturbed by the application of a twenty-year felony to this fish-dumping episode. Justice Scalia asked what kind of “mad prosecutor” would charge Yates with a twenty-year offense, and sarcastically suggested perhaps it was the same prosecutor who had charged Bond with a chemical weapons violation. Later in the oral argument Justice Kennedy remarked, “It seems to me that we should just not use the concept [prosecutorial discretion] or refer to the concept at all anymore.”

The Court’s skepticism about prosecutorial discretion surfaced again this past spring in McDonnell v. United States. In reversing the corruption convictions of the former Virginia governor, the Court adopted a narrow definition of “official act” for purposes of federal bribery law. At oral argument and in its opinion the Court imagined federal prosecutors targeting elected officials for simply attending a lunch where a supporter bought them a bottle of wine, or for attending a ballgame as the guest of homeowners who earlier had sought the official’s help.

The narrow definition of “official act,” the Court concluded, was necessary to prevent politically-motivated prosecutions and the criminalization of routine political courtesies. But critics of the Court’s decision – including me – argue that the result is to shield a great deal of corrupt conduct that is precisely what the law of bribery aims to prevent.

The Future of Prosecutorial Discretion

In these recent cases, when faced with the interpretation of white collar crimes such as bribery, honest services fraud, and obstruction of justice, the Court’s approach has been to interpret the statutes narrowly and consequently to remove charging discretion from federal prosecutors. A moment during the Yates oral argument is particularly illuminating. The Justices asked Assistant Solicitor General Roman Martinez what guidance prosecutors followed when deciding what kind of charges to bring, and that led to this exchange:

MR.MARTINEZ:  Your Honor, the ­. . . my understanding of the U.S. Attorney’s Manual is that the general guidance that’s given is that the prosecutor should charge ­­once the decision is made to bring a criminal prosecution, the prosecutor should charge the ­­the offense that’s the most severe under the law. That’s not a hard and fast rule, but that’s kind of the default principle.  In this case that was Section 1519.

JUSTICE SCALIA:  Well, if that’s going to be the Justice Department’s position, then we’re going to have to be much more careful about how extensive statutes are.  I mean, if you’re saying we’re always going to prosecute the most severe, I’m going to be very careful about how severe I make statutes.

MR. MARTINEZ:  Your Honor, that’s ­­. . .

JUSTICE SCALIA:  Or ­­how much coverage I give to severe statutes.

MR. MARTINEZ:  That’s ­­– that’s not what we were saying.  I think we’re not always going to prosecute every case, and obviously we’re going to exercise our discretion. . . .

As Martinez attempted to point out, the real-world exercise of prosecutorial discretion is far more nuanced than Justice Scalia suggested. It’s true that the Principles of Federal Prosecution provide as a general rule – as they have for decades – that once a decision to bring charges is made a prosecutor generally should charge “the most serious offense that is consistent with the nature of the defendant’s conduct, and that is likely to result in a sustainable conviction.” USAM 9-27.300. But the Principles also recognize the need for prosecutors to consider the nature and circumstances of a particular case, the purpose of criminal law, and law enforcement priorities. What charges are “consistent with the nature of the defendant’s conduct” is also a matter of judgment and discretion. And of course considerable discretion also is involved earlier in the process, when deciding whether to bring charges at all.

But this exchange suggests the Court may believe it needs to interpret criminal statutes more narrowly because it cannot always trust prosecutors to exercise sound judgment when enforcing broadly-written statutes. As Justice Kennedy suggested during the Yates argument, it may be that the Court no longer thinks of prosecutorial discretion as a viable concept.

Of course, some critics of federal prosecutors will welcome this development and suggest it is long overdue. And some will point out that, for prosecutors, this may be considered a self-inflicted wound. The charging decisions in cases like Yates and Bond in particular may be what led the Justices openly to question whether prosecutors should continue to be entrusted with the same degree of discretion.

But it would be unfortunate if the Justices truly come to believe they cannot rely on prosecutors to exercise sound judgment in charging decisions. One can always argue about the merits of particular cases, but overall our system of broadly-written statutes enforced by the sound exercise of prosecutorial discretion has worked pretty well. If the Court continues to chip away at those statutes due to concerns about controlling prosecutors, it will continue to create safe harbors for some conduct that is clearly criminal.

It’s particularly inappropriate for the Court to limit these statutes based on hypotheticals that have no basis in reality, as it did in McDonnell. When we start seeing widespread prosecutions of politicians for accepting legal campaign contributions and attending Rotary Club breakfasts, then maybe we can talk about the need to curb prosecutorial discretion. But simply because we can imagine a parade of horribles based on the broad terms of a white collar statute does not mean that prosecutors are actually marching in that parade.

At the McDonnell oral argument, Justice Breyer noted that narrowing the definition of bribery might mean that a certain amount of corrupt conduct will go unpunished. Unfortunately, for now that appears to be a risk the Court is willing to take.

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