Call bribery by its right name

Where more than in politics is the obvious so routinely denied? And nowhere more than in the Georgia General Assembly, where whether unlimited lobbyist gifts to legislators unduly influence them is still considered open to question.

While public interest groups seek limits or bans on such gifts under the public officer civil laws, and lawmakers claim mandatory public reporting of gifts is itself sufficient, a two-decade-old Georgia Supreme Court case tells us the obvious — and with it, all we need to know to end this debate and outlaw these gifts once and for all.

The State v. Agan decision of 1989 addresses when money-given-for-votes but camouflaged as a “campaign contribution” becomes a plain old bribe under criminal laws. Although the subject was campaign contributions, the clear-minded reasoning of a unanimous decision gave us universal principles which should put beyond debate the arrogant practice of lobbyists and others showering legislators with unlimited gifts and trips.

The Agan decision did much to answer the question: When is a gift graft? It emphatically negated any notion that the mere fact that a bribe disguised as a campaign contribution “must be reported does not change its character as a bribe.” Likewise with reporting gifts and trips — their character remains unchanged. Plying legislators without limits cannot be sanitized or justified by mere reporting.

But Agan goes much further. Although specifically addressing campaign contributions, its rationale is broad enough to cover gifts and trips as well. For our Supreme Court in Agan made it clear that it is not just explicit vote-selling that is prohibited by our bribery laws, but receipt of “anything of value in exchange for the performance of any act related to the functions of that office.” That holding is worth pondering — “any act” presumably means what it says.

And an express agreement for “any act” may not be required. The Supreme Court in Agan emphasized the purpose of a gift — the bribery statute prohibits gifts “with the purpose of influencing” the officeholder “in the performance of any act related to the functions of his office.”

The court, in declining to follow an Illinois case which permitted campaign contributions “from those who might seek to influence the candidate’s performance as long as no promise for or performance of a specific official act is given in exchange,” expressly ruled that such a “rule” would “proliferate corrupt practices.” In sum, a quid pro quo agreement is not required for the law in Georgia to be violated.

As this debate continues, Georgia’s public officials and their gift-givers alike might best proceed with considerable caution in accepting or giving gifts permitted by civil laws, remaining strictly within the bribery law’s statutorily permitted limited gifts, such as those with “a value less than $100.00.”

Who knows when — even without a change in current law — an ambitious prosecutor or two may seek to “make a name for themselves” by looking for a few “notches in their belt.” After all, it happened in Agan.

Wyc Orr is an attorney in Gainesville.