When are Gratuities Bribes?

Supreme Court

New Orleans       When the very ethically challenged Supreme Court Justices (see any reports on Alito or Thomas, if in doubt) look at corruption cases they are pretty much ready to bend over backwards in offering a pass on handouts to politicians.  We’ve talked about the pretzeled argument made in a recent decision on extending their parsing of “official duties” as distinct from bribes and using that same determination on the question of immunity for an ex-president’s criminal conduct.  This might seem logical on some level, but so easily twisted that it is unrecognizable in most reckonings that seek reality and truth.  What Chief Justice Roberts seems to miss completely is the very fundamental difference between an umpire calling balls and strikes and a judge seeking to render justice.

The question that was posed by a small-time mayor in Indiana accursed of taking a $13,000 bribe from Peterbilt, the big trucking and transportation company, after approving a $1.1 million purchase order, is whether this was a gratuity, you know, like a tip.  Absurdly, Justice Kavanagh in writing the opinion trivialized the whole matter, saying

“Could students take their college professor out to Chipotle for an end-of-term celebration.  And, if so, would it somehow become criminal to take the professor for a steak dinner? Or to treat her to a Hoosiers game?”

Is it only me, or doesn’t everyone wearing street clothes rather than a black robe, not understand that there’s a difference between a $13,000 payment to a politician and an apple for the teacher or a dinner or a game?  I’m not even going to touch how this mayor greased the skids for the contract on the front end, or claimed to be a “consultant” to Peterbilt to justify the so-called gift, without being able to prove any work product, contract or howdy-do.

I get that the conservative majority wants to try to draw the line at what happens after the fact and make that a gratuity, as opposed to what happens before the fact, which is more clearly a bribe, even if they don’t want to admit that a big campaign donation to a pol before an election or to her fund to pay off campaign debt after her election, also looks a lot like a bribe to many of us.  I also get the fact that the wingers on the Court, hiding behind the fact there are no clear ethical standards or penalties for their indiscretions, want to argue that a federal law defining payments as bribes doesn’t count if there are no local or state laws forbidding having your hand out.  As Justice Jackson wrote in her dissent, this was a ruling that “only today’s court could love.”

The Justices claim that they just want to make the standards clear so that politicians know when not to cross the line.  How is this hard?  Why is the line not simply, “don’t take money from someone or something doing business with your government.”  Let me add that this decision was not an outlier, but part of this Court’s pattern in decisions on a Virginia governor in 2016, Bridgegate in New Jersey in 2013, and 2023 involving bid rigging and illicit payments in New York State.

I also have to admit that it galls me that there is such a double standard for union leaders and representatives under US labor law.  Taking a dinner from a company after settling a contract could get you ousted under Landrum-Griffin.  If you represented hotel workers and allowed the hotel to comp you a room or a meal afterwards, you could be barred from working for a union for years, if not forever.  Funny how when it comes to workers, unions have to be pure as driven snow, but when it comes to politicians and maybe judges, it’s ok to wallow at the trough with the pigs.

The Court’s decision really only made one line crystal clear, and that is if you are a politician without a moral compass, you can absolutely get paid now.  Postdate that check. The difference between a bribe and a gratuity is just a question of timing.