Not all gifts are payoffs, high court rules

Company that gave Espy $5,900 in tickets, other gifts has conviction overturned

April 28, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Lobbyists who wine and dine federal government officials gained some legal shelter from the Supreme Court yesterday as the justices made such gift-giving and other favors harder to prosecute as crimes.

The law against giving a federal employee "something of value" applies, the court ruled unanimously, only when someone who provides a gift or favor understands that the gesture is linked to a specific action by the official.

The court rejected the argument, made by an independent counsel and supported by the Justice Department, that the very act of giving something of value to someone who holds a government position is illegal.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the decision, said such a view of the law would mean that it could be a crime for a championship sports team to give jerseys to the president during a ceremonial White House visit, or for a high school principal to give a school baseball cap to a U.S. education secretary.

Given the vast number of laws and regulations that may limit favors or gifts to federal officials, Scalia said, the illegal gifts law should not be singled out for an expansive interpretation and used as a "meat ax."

The ruling thus cut back significantly on the ability of federal prosecutors to use the "illegal gratuity" law to police the relationship between lobbyists and federal officers and employees.

But the ruling does not insulate lobbyists or others who pay outright bribes to officials to take specific actions. The court did nothing to weaken the federal bribery law in cases where an explicit effort is made to influence an official through some action or payoff.

Bribery, a more serious crime than illegal gift-giving, involves a quid pro quo -- a payoff by a giver that is accepted by an official when both understand it is a payoff.

Lobbyists also must continue to steer through an array of government rules that limit the favors that officials may accept.

The decision overturns the conviction of Sun-Diamond Growers of California, an agricultural cooperative of nut and fruit growers. The company was convicted of giving illegal gifts to Mike Espy when he headed the Agriculture Department earlier in the Clinton administration.

The cooperative was accused of giving Espy $5,900 in illegal gifts through a college friend of Espy's who was a Sun-Diamond vice president. The gifts included $2,295 in tickets to the U.S. Open tennis tournament, $2,427 in luggage, $665 in meals and a frame print and crystal bowl worth $524.

The jury convicted Sun-Diamond on that count after being instructed by the judge that it is illegal to give something of value to an official who can take action favorable to the gift-giver. That is the interpretation of the law the Supreme Court overturned.

The ruling marked the second major setback for Donald C. Smaltz, the independent counsel who investigated and prosecuted Espy in a case that forced his resignation as agriculture secretary.

In December, Espy himself was acquitted by a jury on 30 charges of corruption. Smaltz spent more than four years and $17 million investigating Espy and his department.

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