by Bob Lackner
Arguably, the worst offense a public official can be accused of is the crime of bribery — essentially offering, giving, receiving, or soliciting something of value for the purpose of influencing an official in the discharge of his or her public duties. The crime violates a basic notion inherent in a healthy democracy: That a public servant’s sole motivation is the promotion of the public interest — not the securing of private gain. Although it is fortunate that, in Colorado, accusations of bribery against public officials are rare, every public official should have a basic understanding of the nature of the crime to avoid even coming close to what would constitute criminal behavior.
The crime of bribery made its first appearance in Colorado law in the original state constitution, which went into effect on August 1, 1876. Section 40 of article V of the state constitution, the article that governs the Legislative Department, is entitled “Bribery and influence in general assembly”, and it states in relevant part:
If any member of the general assembly shall give his vote or influence for or against any measure or proposition pending in such general assembly, or offer, promise, or assent so to do, upon condition that any other member will give or will promise or assent to give his vote or influence in favor of or against any other measure or proposition pending or proposed to be introduced in such general assembly, or in consideration that any other member hath given his vote or influence for or against any other measure or proposition in such general assembly, he shall be deemed guilty of bribery; and any member of the general assembly, or person elected thereto, who shall be guilty of either of such offenses shall be expelled, and shall not be thereafter eligible to the same general assembly; and, on conviction therefor in the civil courts, shall be liable to such further penalty as may be prescribed by law.
Thus, as applied to a member of the General Assembly, this constitutional prohibition applies to the specific crime of “vote-trading,” whereby a legislator agrees to vote a certain way on the condition that another legislator votes in a particular way. (This practice is more informally referred to as “log-rolling.”) The inclusion of a prohibition on this practice in the section governing the legislative department reflects the deep distaste the framers of our state constitution had for the practice.
This is especially true given that section 40 does not forbid (or even address) what we now think of as bribery; that is, offering, giving, receiving, or soliciting something of value for the purpose of influencing an official in the discharge of his or her public duties. This more conventional form of bribery is addressed and prohibited in section 6 of article XII of the state constitution, which applies to civil officers and members of the General Assembly. In relevant part, this section prohibits those individuals from soliciting or receiving, directly or indirectly, anything of value for their votes, official influence, or actions. Like the aforementioned log-rolling provision, this provision has been part of the state constitution since its adoption in August of 1876.
Bribery is also among the many crimes addressed and prohibited in our state’s Criminal Code. Under section 18-8-302 (1)(b), C.R.S., which concerns “Bribery and Corrupt Influences,” a public servant (which includes a member of the General Assembly) commits bribery if he or she solicits or accepts any financial benefit upon any agreement or understanding that his or her vote, opinion, or other action as a public servant will be influenced. A person who offers or agrees to extend a benefit to a public servant with the intent to influence the public servant’s action in his or her official capacity commits the crime as well. (See section 18-8-302 (1) (a), C.R.S.)
Bribery is a class 3 felony, which means that a person convicted of the crime faces a prison sentence of four to 12 years. (See section 18-1.3-401 (1) (a) (V) (A), C.R.S.)
Other criminal offenses in the Colorado Criminal Code relating to bribery include:
- Compensation for official past behavior (when a public servant accepts any benefit as compensation for taking official action in favor of another);
- Trading in public office (accepting a benefit in exchange for appointing someone to public office);
- Directing a bidder or contractor to deal with a particular person in connection with obtaining goods or services in bidding on a contract; and
- Failing to disclose a conflict of interest when the public servant owns a substantial interest in a private entity participating in the transaction.
In McDonnell v. United States, 579 U.S. ___ (2016), the United States Supreme Court stated that “[t]he basic compact underlying representative government assumes that public officials will hear from their constituents and act appropriately on their concerns…”. (For an in-depth discussion of the case, see this recent Legisource post) Ethical and conscientious legislators know the appropriate actions to take on behalf of their constituents and others with interests in public policy. They are also aware of those actions that may subject the legislators to criminal prosecution for engaging in bribery or related offenses that harm the public trust at the heart of representative government.