High court should clarify line between campaign donations, bribes, judge says
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The judge who presided over Alabama’s two gambling corruption trials said the U.S. Supreme Court needs to clear up when a campaign contribution constitutes a bribe.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson issued an opinion saying that even though the trials ended with total acquittals for the eight defendants, he wanted to “highlight a murky field of federal law.”
He wrote that there is “considerable confusion” about how federal corruption laws apply to campaign contributions, and a precise definition of bribery would help.
The U.S. Justice Department, which prosecuted the gambling cases, had no immediate comment. Some defense attorneys contacted for comment said they had not had time to study the judge’s 33-page opinion.
The two trials before Thompson involved legislators and casino lobbyists accused of promising millions in campaign contributions in return for votes on pro-gambling legislation.
In his opinion July 24, Thompson wrote that it’s normal for politicians to seek campaign contributions and for donors to contribute to politicians to share their views. But he said the offer or acceptance of a contribution crosses the line if the money is conditioned on the politician performing a specific official action.
In one case, he said the U.S. Supreme Court said the contribution must be “made in return for an explicit promise or undertaking” to be considered a bribe. But he noted that the court did not explain what those terms include.
He said the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tried to clarify the issue in former Gov. Don Siegelman’s bribery case involving contributions to his lottery campaign. The appeals court said “explicit” does not mean that the promise has to be in writing or that it must be overheard by a third party.
Thompson said he tried to provide more clarity in his instructions to the juries in the two trials in Montgomery, but the Supreme Court needs to do more to remove uncertainty about when a campaign contribution becomes a bribe.
“Uncertainty in this area of law breeds corruption and chills legitimate political speech,” he wrote.