Two federal crimes that have garnered national attention lately are bribery and extortion. Many people wonder “what are the differences between bribery and extortion?” Consider these key differences and be sure to consult with an experienced attorney if you’re facing bribery or extortion charges yourself.
Bribery is a white-collar crime. Per the Legal Information Institute of Cornell University Law School, bribery is the offering, soliciting, giving, or receiving of any item of value (i.e. money, gifts, meals, assets of value, etc.) for the purpose of influencing someone who holds a public or legal duty. The federal bribery statute, 18 U.S. Code Section 201 has three basic elements: 1) giving or promising to give something of value, 2) to a public official, 3) in order to influence any official act by that public official, or in order to get that public official to commit a fraud or allow a fraud to occur, or to get that public official to do something in violation of their duty or to not do something required by their duty. The public official can also be guilty of bribery if they initiate or invite the bribery. The statute can also apply to the giving or receiving something of value in order to influence the testimony of another before Congress or at a trial.
A classic example of bribery would be a construction contractor giving a public works official money in exchange for the official steering a public works contract to the contractor, even if the contractor was not the lowest bidder.
Like bribery, extortion is also a white-collar crime, and a serious one at that. Under 18 U.S. Code Section 872, extortion has three basic elements: 1) a public official (or someone pretending to be a public official), 2) extracts a thing of value from another person, 3) by the use of threats, placing the person in fear of injury, or kidnaping the person.
Note that this isn’t the only definition of extortion, though. A statute known as the Hobbs Act (18 U.S.C. Section 1951) has elements similar to Section 872 above: 1) a person obtains property from another person, 2) by use of actual force, threatened force, violence, fear or “under color of official right.” The Supreme Court of the United States, in Evans v. United States, explained that the definition of extortion derives from the common law meaning – an offense that is committed by a public official by taking money to which they are not entitled for the performance of official duties.
The “under color of official right” provision of the Hobbs Act means that in order for a public official to be convicted of extortion, they do not necessarily have to obtain the property via force or threat of force or violence. Rather, the coercive element of extortion in this context is provided merely by the fact that the official holds public office. Note that property in this context can be anything of value, both intangible and tangible.
Perhaps the clearest example of a prosecution for extortion “under color of official right” is the prosecution and conviction of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Governor Blagojevich was found guilty of Hobbs Act Violations for soliciting bribes in exchange for official public acts. The most notable count of conviction was for Governor Blagojevich’s soliciting money to appoint someone to Barack Obama’s Senate seat after he had been elected President of the United States. Simply put, Governor Blagojevich had the power to appoint someone to a vacant Senate seat. However, asking for money in exchange for that appointment was illegal.
As you can see, there are several different federal laws that address bribery and extortion. The U.S. Attorney prosecuting a case of bribery or extortion can choose whichever statute they believe best fits the facts of the case.
Is a “quid pro quo” the same as bribery or extortion?
“Quid pro quo” is a Latin phrase that means “something for something” or “this for that.” Every bribery or extortion charge necessarily has a “quid pro quo.” However, not every “quid pro quo” is a crime. If one person offers another $5,000.00 to purchase a car, that is simply a contract for the sale of a car. Although there is a quid pro quo (“I’ll give you $5,000.00 if you give me your car”) that is not illegal. On the other hand, if the quid pro quo is money in exchange for a public official’s act (“I’ll give you $5000.00 if you give my company the public works contract”) then that is certainly illegal.
Penalties for Bribery and Extortion
Bribery and extortion have slightly different meanings and definitions, but both are punished heavily. A bribery conviction under 18 U.S.C. Section 201 can result in a fine up to three times the monetary equivalent of the thing of value involved in the case, up to fifteen years in prison, or both. Furthermore, a person convicted of bribery may also be disqualified from holding any public office. A conviction for extortion, on the other hand, can result in a fine, imprisonment up to three years, or both. If the extortion involves less than $1,000, then the period of imprisonment may not exceed one year. A Hobbs Act Extortion conviction can result in fines and up to twenty years in prison. Governor Blagojevich was sentenced to fourteen years for his crimes.
Defending Against Bribery and Extortion
The defense strategy that is employed in a bribery or extortion case will vary depending upon the specific facts of the case. However, the burden is on the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that bribery, extortion, or both were committed by the defendant. As such, there may be several defenses available to a defendant. For instance, the defense could demonstrate the thing offered to (or requested by) the public official has no value. The defense might also demonstrate that the action being requested from the public official (or being offered by the public official) is not an official act. The defense might also demonstrate that neither party had the required intent to engage in bribery or extortion. Finally, the defense might be able to establish that the public official was not actually a public official at the time of the alleged bribery or extortion.
Work with an Experienced Federal Crimes Lawyer to Learn More
If you’re merely following current news and are interested in the differences between bribery and extortion, you don’t need a lawyer. However, if you are a public official who is worried about being charged with bribery or extortion or if you have in fact been charged with bribery or extortion, hiring a federal bribery and extortion attorney is advised. At Koffsky & Felsen, LLC, our federal crimes attorneys are experienced trial lawyers. If you are facing charges, call our law office today for a consultation.