Lobbying and bribery are two terms that are often used interchangeably, but they are vastly different from each other. While both involve the act of influencing others, one is considered a legitimate and legal means of advocacy, while the other is an illegal and unethical practice.
In this article, we will explore the differences between lobbying and bribery to better understand these two practices, their consequences, and why one is considered acceptable while the other is not.
So, What are Lobbying and Bribery?
Lobbying is the act of attempting to influence public officials or government policy through various means, such as meetings, phone calls, emails, letters, or other forms of communication. Lobbyists are hired by interest groups, corporations, or individuals to advocate for their views on specific issues or policies. The goal of lobbying is to persuade lawmakers to support the interests of the lobbyist's clients.
For example, a lobbying firm hired by a renewable energy company may meet with lawmakers to discuss the benefits of clean energy and advocate for policies that promote renewable energy sources.
Bribery, conversely, is the act of offering or receiving something of value, such as money, gifts, or favors, in exchange for a specific action or decision. Bribery is illegal and unethical because it undermines the fairness and impartiality of the decision-making process.
For example, a company may offer a government official a bribe to secure a lucrative contract or gain an advantage in a regulatory matter. In such a case, the bribe would be given to influence the official's decision-making process, which would be unethical and illegal.
Now, What is the Difference Between Lobbying and Bribery?
As we stated, the main difference between lobbying and bribery is the legality and ethical nature of the activities.
Lobbying is a legitimate and legal means of advocacy that the First Amendment to the US Constitution protects. It involves attempting to influence public officials or government policy through various means, such as communication and education. Lobbying is typically done in an open and transparent manner, and lobbyists are required to register and disclose their activities and clients.
Bribery, in contrast, is an illegal and unethical practice. It is often done in secret, intending to influence a decision that would not otherwise be made.
But What Happens When Donations are Involved?
When donations are involved, lobbying and bribery can become more complex and difficult to distinguish from each other.
On the one hand, campaign donations are a legitimate and legal way for individuals and organizations to support political candidates or parties they believe in. Donations to political campaigns, parties, or political action committees (PACs) are considered a form of free speech and are protected under the First Amendment.
Candidates and parties often rely on donations to fund their campaigns and promote their policies, so donations can be a way for individuals or organizations to support candidates who share their views.
However, when donations are made with the expectation of a specific action or decision, they can cross the line into bribery. For example, if a company donates money to a political campaign expecting to receive a favorable decision on a regulatory matter, this would be considered bribery.
Another way donations blur the line between lobbying and bribery is through the revolving door phenomenon. This refers to the practice of individuals moving between government positions and private sector jobs.
When government officials move to private sector jobs, they often bring with them valuable knowledge and connections that can be used to influence policy decisions. This can create the perception that private sector jobs are being used to influence government policy decisions, undermining public trust in the political process.
So, while campaign donations can be a legitimate and legal form of political advocacy, they can also cross the line into bribery when made with the expectation of a specific action or decision.
Examining FTX's Political Donations
Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF), the co-founder and former CEO of now-defunct crypto exchange FTX, who is currently free on a $250 million bail package but confined to his parent's home in Palo Alto, California, has pleaded not guilty to an array of criminal charges, including bank fraud and bribing a foreign official.
In total, SBF is facing 13 criminal counts and is accused of orchestrating a vast fraud that led to the collapse of the exchange in November and the misappropriation of billions of dollars in customer deposits.
Federal prosecutors have been expanding the case against SBF, which is scheduled to go to trial in October. The most recent charge accuses him of orchestrating a $40 million payment to at least one Chinese official in 2021 to unfreeze $1 billion in funds belonging to Alameda Research, his trading firm.
Besides this, in 2020, SBF made the second highest contributor of $5.2 million to the US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's campaign.
But this isn't all. According to the indictment unsealed in February, SBF and his allies abused customers' accounts to influence US crypto regulation through donations. Over 300 political donations in total were made to attempt to influence legislation and regulations that were beneficial to the company, and these donations were made using a “straw” donor or funds from a corporation, which is illegal.
Federal prosecutors have produced six million pages of documents for SBF's defense team, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking to extract information from seven laptops and phones that belonged to him and others involved in the case.
This week, Judge Lewis A. Kaplan authorized a new set of bail conditions for SBF, significantly curtailing his internet access. Under the new rules, he is permitted to use only two electronic devices — a basic laptop configured with limited internet access with monitoring software to track user activity and a phone with no internet connection.
SBF is charged with 13 counts, including securities fraud, wire fraud, and campaign finance violations. Federal prosecutors brought the bribery charge under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, a federal law prohibiting big corporations from paying bribes to operate in other countries.
Bribery is Actually More Common Than People may Realize
SBF is not the only example of bribery—just the latest. There have been several high-profile cases of corruption and scandal throughout history.
One of the most notorious examples of bribery is the Watergate scandal, which occurred in the 1970s. This scandal involved the Nixon administration's efforts to cover up a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, DC. It was later revealed that administration members had used bribery, wiretapping, and other illegal means to influence the investigation and cover up their involvement.
Another major example of bribery is the Enron scandal, which occurred in the early 2000s. Enron, a large energy company, engaged in fraudulent accounting practices and used bribes and other illegal means to manipulate the energy market and inflate its stock prices. Several high-ranking Enron executives were convicted of bribery, fraud, and other crimes.
In the 1980s, the FBI conducted a sting operation called “Abscam,” which targeted members of Congress and other public officials who were suspected of taking bribes. The operation involved FBI agents posing as representatives of a fictional Arab sheik who offered bribes in exchange for political favors. Several public officials were convicted of bribery and other crimes as a result of the operation.
These high-profile cases are just a few examples of how bribery can undermine the integrity of public institutions and damage public trust in the political process.
Increased Attention on Manipulated Elections
As the US prepares for the next presidential election, there is growing attention on the manipulated election movement that emerged after the last election. Under this movement, many believe that the last election was rigged against Donald Trump. This belief has fueled efforts to ditch voting machines.
Although state and local election officials have explained the many layers of protection surrounding voting systems, prominent figures in Trump's camp, such as MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, continue to push for the elimination of voting machines. Their proposal involves using hand-marked paper ballots that would be counted manually by poll workers in each of the approximately 180,000 voting precincts throughout the country.
There has been no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting machines in the US. Multiple reviews in battleground states where Trump disputed his loss confirmed the election results were accurate. Despite this, Trump has signaled that the 2020 election will remain an integral part of his 2024 presidential bid.
It isn't the latest, though. In recent years, there has been growing concern about the potential for manipulated elections in the United States. The 2016 US presidential election, in particular, raised questions about the role of foreign interference and manipulation in the electoral process.
In 2016, US intelligence agencies concluded that Russian government actors had coordinated to interfere in the election, using tactics such as hacking and disinformation campaigns to influence public opinion and sow discord. The Mueller investigation further confirmed this interference and found that individuals associated with the Russian government had engaged in a sophisticated social media campaign to influence the election.
In addition to foreign interference, there has also been concern about domestic efforts to manipulate elections. The Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision allowed for unlimited corporate spending on political campaigns, leading to a flood of money in the political system. This has led to concerns that corporations and other wealthy interests can use their financial resources to influence elections and sway public opinion in their favor.
Overall, concerns about manipulated elections in the US have highlighted the need for transparency and accountability in the political process. Efforts to limit the influence of corporate money in politics and promote fair and transparent electoral systems are crucial to protecting the integrity of US democracy.