Bribery Research Paper

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The act or practice of benefiting a person in order to betray a trust or to perform a duty meant to be performed freely, bribery occurs in relation to a public official and, derivatively, in private transactions. This article will deal with both species in terms of (1) the tradition; (2) modern law; and (3) problems.

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The Tradition


Like many American legal concepts, the notion of bribery has its roots in the ancient Near East. As in most archaic societies, peaceful relations with strangers were here established in two ways, by gift and by contract. The gods or God were similarly made approachable by offerings or covenants. Against the norm of reciprocal relations ran two concepts. First, the ruler was the protector of the powerless, of ‘‘the widow and the orphan,’’ as texts from Lagash (2400 B.C.), Babylon (1700 B.C.), and Israel (600 B.C.) expressed it. Second, man was judged by the gods impartially, as shown by the sales in the judgment scene of the Egyptian Book of the Dead (2500 B.C.). A ruler who aids the powerless is not responsive to gifts, nor is one who judges in the place of the gods. These religious insights crystallized in an image of a judge who does not take gifts for his judgment, an ideal apparent in Egyptian texts by 1500 B.C. The ideal received an expression of great influence on Western culture in Deuteronomy (seventh century B.C.), where it was stated that God in judging ‘‘does not take reward’’ (Deut. 10:17) and man in judging should not ‘‘take reward’’ (Deut. 16:19). The total biblical message on reciprocity was mixed but provides the main religious outlook from which the bribery prohibition of the West developed.

Biblical hostility to bribery was reinforced by a political tradition that appeared in the Greek city-states and had a strong impact on the ideals of the Roman Republic. The classic expression was provided by Cicero in his prosecution of Verres (whose name in Latin means ‘‘hog’’), among the worst of whose offenses was ‘‘taking money for judgment,’’ a crime described as ‘‘the foulest’’ (Against Verres, pp. 2, 3, 78). The essential sanction was supernatural, and climactically Cicero called on various gods to punish Hog.

The antibribery ethic, reflecting the biblical and classical sources, was conveyed by Christian moralists like Augustine and reinforced by the special aversion developed against a subspecies of bribery, the sin of simony, or sale of spiritual offices or goods. Denounced as a heresy, simony was the periodic object of reformers from Gregory I (A.D. 600) to Gregory VII (A.D. 1073). The notion of a spiritual domain that should not be sold complemented that of nonvendible justice. Papal pronouncements such as Innocent III’s Qualiter et quando of 1205 (Gregory IX, ‘‘Decretales’’) insisted that judges must put aside ‘‘favor and fear’’ and ‘‘have God alone before their


Secular law followed suit. The antibribery ethic was firmly set out in Henry de Bracton’s great mid-thirteenth-century treatise on English law (pp. 302–303), where the taking of bribery was condemned by biblical and Roman law and the judge who takes was said to be ‘‘corrupted by filth.’’ Two notions, central to the idea of a judge in English law, were embodied in the antibribery ethic: trust should not be betrayed, acts of judgment cannot be sold. All subsequent development flows from these two ideas.

Literature and Linguistics

The strongest teacher of the prohibition of bribery was literary. At the center of the European tradition stood Dantes Divine Comedy, in which bribery and simony constituted sins of fraud, more reprehensible than sins of violence because they involved misuse of man’s intellect; those who sold secular justice were punished even more severely than the ecclesiastics, by immersion in a boiling, sticky pitch. Lucca, where ‘‘No becomes Yes for money,’’ is eternally stigmatized as a symbol of civic corruption (Inferno, canto 21). Shakespeare fixed the English literary-moral tradition, especially with passages on bribes and corruption in Julius Caesar (act 4, scene 3) and with an entire play, Measure for Measure, which contrasts Christian spiritual reciprocities with foul redemption by a bribe. From Shakespeare to Henry Adams (Democracy) and Robert Penn Warren (All the King’s Men), the moral offensiveness of criminal bribery has been a significant theme in English and American literature.

The classical languages had a single word— shohadh in Hebrew, doron in Greek, and munus in Latin—meaning gift, reward, bribe. The ambiguity reflected moral and legal ambivalences. By the sixteenth century, English used bribe unambiguously in its present moral and legal sense. By the same period to bribe, bribery, and briber were in use, as well as the colloquial expression to grease, meaning to bribe. Bribee, graft, and grafter are nineteenth-century terms, the latter two American. Slush fund, a source from which bribes are paid, and payoff are twentieth-century Americanisms. The association of bribes with dirt, dirty hands, and grease goes back to classical times. Euphemisms for bribe are gift, gratuity, reward, contribution, and kickback. Conflict of interest is sometimes used for a good-faith dilemma, sometimes as a euphemism for a situation produced by bribery.


In the Anglo-American tradition there have been several cases in which the defendant was so prominent that his prosecution was exemplary. (1) The paradigmatic trial of a bribe-taking judge was that of Francis Bacon, chancellor of England, convicted by the House of Lords in 1621. (2) The classic trial of a corrupt administrator was that of Governor-General Warren Hastings of Bengal, impeached by the House of Commons in 1787. Although ultimately acquitted, Hastings was irretrievably damaged in reputation, and his prosecution by Edmund Burke, modeled on Cicero’s of Hog, set the standards for the nineteenth-century British civil service. (3) The trial of Oakes Ames, a Massachusetts congressman and a central figure in the Union Pacific–Credit Mobilier scandal, served as a double paradigm for bribers and legislators. Ames was censured by the House of Representatives in 1873 for bribing members of Congress. Legislative investigation created each paradigm. In each, multiple acts of bribery were established. The essential sanction in each was public shame.

Modern Law

Nonstatutory Sanctions

Bribery, along with treason, is one of two crimes for which the United States Constitution (art. ii, sec. 4) specifically prescribes impeachment for the President, VicePresident, and ‘‘all civil officers of the United States.’’ Two federal judges have been impeached and convicted of corruption; more than a dozen others have resigned in the face of threatened impeachment. Indication of investigation has produced other resignations, most notably of a Justice of the Supreme Court.

Since 1873, Congress has censured members for bribe-taking or bribe-giving, and in 1980 it actually expelled a member after his criminal conviction. A more common sanction has been electoral, although belief that a candidate is a bribe-taker is more apt to act as a comparative disadvantage than an absolute disqualification. Lawyers convicted of bribery are subject to disbarment. In descending order of frequency, electoral disadvantage, forced or prudential resignation, disbarment, censure, impeachment, and expulsion have been sanctions for bribery in high American office. In enforcing them, the role of the press has been crucial.


Modern statutes, state and federal, have four common characteristics. (1) They apply equally to receivers and givers. (2) They are comprehensive, including as officials all employees of government and those acting in a government capacity, such as jurors and legislators. More recent statutes include party officials and even party employees. (3) They treat bribery as a crime that can be committed by the briber even though the bribee is not influenced. (4) They treat bribery as a felony.

American statutes differ in that some treat a bribe as any ‘‘benefit,’’ thereby including nonpecuniary favors, whereas others restrict the term to pecuniary benefits. Some, such as the New York Penal Code, permit extortion to be a defense for the bribe-giver (N.Y. Penal Law (McKinney) § 200.05 (1999)), but this defense is disapproved by the Model Penal Code (§ 240.1). Older statutes use corruptly to qualify the condemned giving and receiving, whereas more recent ones eliminate corruptly and speak more specifically. An essential component of modem statutes is an antigratuity provision making it criminal to confer any benefit on an official ‘‘for or because of any official act’’ (18 U.S.C. § 201(c)(1)(A)(1994)). Excepted, of course, are benefits provided by law. The provision eliminates a need to show that the benefit was ‘‘to influence’’ performance. The giver is guilty if he gave for the act; the recipient is guilty if he took on account of the act. Some statutes also criminalize compensation for a past official act, obviating difficulty in proving bribery (Model Penal Code § 240.3). Some statutes also criminally forbid private employment in a matter on which, as an official, one had acted, assimilating such conflicting interest to a bribe. An example of such a statute is the Bribery, Graft, and Conflicts of Interest Act of 1962, as amended, 18 U.S.C. §§ 201– 208 (1999)).


Neither the state nor the federal statutes have been systematically and uniformly enforced against all offenders. Usually either political investigation or particularly outrageous corruption has triggered prosecution. Routine federal cases show topicality: bribees were prohibition agents in the 1920s, draftboard members in the 1940s, revenue agents in the 1950s. Celebrated convictions include those of Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall for accepting bribes in connection with the Teapot Dome oil leases (Fall v. United States, 49 F.2d 506 (D.C. Cir. 1931)) and of Circuit Court Judge Martin Manton (United States v. Manton, 107 F.2d 834 (2d Cir. 1938)).

The 1970s were marked by a more sustained federal effort, in particular by the temporary Watergate Special Prosecution Force, by the permanent Office of Public Integrity in the Justice Department, and by the project known as Abscam, where the use of decoys and the filming of transactions led to the conviction of half a dozen members of Congress and a senator.

Auxiliary Legislation

Evidentiary difficulty in proving bribery, conceptual difficulty in distinguishing bribes from campaign contributions, and experience with the effect of money on elections have led to the adoption of state and federal laws generically known as anticorrupt practice acts. Typically, these limit the amount of campaign contributions, require that they be made only to identified committees, specify that they be reported, and prohibit certain classes of contributors from contributing anything. Offenses under such statutes have, in general, been misdemeanors rather than felonies. The laws have been limited and sometimes invalidated by federal or state constitutional requirements.

For the most part the effectiveness of these statutes has rested chiefly on their being observed by law-abiding corporate managers, lawyers, auditors, and campaign officials. Before the 1970s there was almost no criminal enforcement of the federal law against corporations, contractors, or candidates. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), by requiring the confession of illegal contributions by corporations with stock registered under the Securities Exchange Act, and the Watergate Special Prosecution Force, showed that the laws were often violated. John McCloy’s report on Gulf Oil was particularly revealing, disclosing that a slush fund had been maintained for fifteen years, from which leading American politicians, including Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, were supplied with envelopes containing cash. The difference between such access payments and bribes was difficult to detect.

While federal agencies began to give vigor in the 1970s to the Corrupt Practices Act, federal involvement in prosecuting state and local bribery underwent an enormous expansion. Mail fraud law was used to catch the bribery of Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois. Failure to report the income led to the prosecution of Vice-President Spiro Agnew for bribes taken as governor of Maryland. In addition, on the books were (1) the Travel Act of 1961, as amended, 18 U.S.C. § 1952 (1999), making it a federal felony to use interstate facilities to commit what was bribery under state law; and (2) the much older Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951 (1999), covering any act affecting interstate commerce and defining extortion as obtaining property from another person with that person’s consent ‘‘under color of official right.’’ This definition was interpreted to include payoffs expressly or tacitly sought by a governor, a state legislator, a city alderman, or a policeman (for example, United States v. Braasch, 505 F.2d 139 (7th Cir. 1974)).

These laws were eventually overshadowed by the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act of 1970, 18 U.S.C. 1962 (1999) § 1961, punishing as ‘‘racketeering’’ any ‘‘pattern’’ (two or more acts) of bribery. Under this act, bribe-taking bail bondsmen, sheriffs, and traffic court employees—typical small-time grafters—as well as state revenue officials, state senators, and a state governor, were federally indicted as racketeers. Acquittal under state law was no defense to the federal crime, and state statutes of limitations did not apply. Armed by RICO with powerful weapons, the Justice Department became a formidable adversary of local corruption. By the 1970s, state officials were being federally prosecuted at the rate of several hundred per year.

Foreign Corrupt Practices

In the 1970s the SEC took the position that payments of bribes overseas constituted material information, to be disclosed on reports to the SEC. More than four hundred American companies confessed to making such payments. A small percentage of registered corporations, they included such giants as Lockheed Corporation, which spent $6 million a year in overseas bribes. In response to public furor, Congress enacted the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977, 15 U.S.C. §§ 78dd-1–dd-2 (1999). This legislation was notable in four respects: (1) The statute made it a crime to bribe an official of another country, an extension of jurisdiction never attempted before in regard to bribery. (2) It applied only to bribers, whereas other bribery laws apply to bribees as well. (3) Under criminal penalty, it required one class of bribers, those registered under the securities laws, to make a public report of its crime. (4) As to all bribers, it was more stringent than federal law on bribery in the United States in that (a) it applied to bribing political parties; (b) it applied to all domestic businesses and all American citizens; and (c) it specified a heavier financial punishment, up to $1 million. The act’s effect has depended on cooperation by lawyers, auditors, corporate managers, and outside directors.

Commerce and Contests

Criminal statutes against the bribery of private persons began with New York in 1881. They were enacted in England and several states in the early twentieth century, numbered seventeen by 1934, and doubled by 1980. The earlier statutes tended to specify employments—gardeners in Maryland, chauffeurs in Illinois! The more recent tendency, reflected in the Model Penal Code, has been to include all employees, agents, and fiduciaries. Seeking to reach payola in the recording business, the Code, followed by several states, also includes anyone who professionally is a disinterested expert. The statutes in substance make it a crime to confer a benefit on a fiduciary with intent to influence the recipient’s conduct in his principal’s affairs. Consent of the principal is a defense, and penalties vary. The statutes have sometimes been invoked civilly to invalidate a contract, but they have rarely led to criminal convictions. Persons injured have more incentive to hold the bribee liable for the bribe or to make the briber turn over his gain.

Between 1947 and 1980, thirty-four states made it a crime to influence sporting contests by bribes to officials or participants. The state statutes are rarely used, but occasionally they have been harshly applied—for example, ten years’ sentence of imprisonment was imposed for fixing a basketball game in Iowa. Concern with the effect on sports of professional gamblers connected with organized crime led in 1964 to a federal law which has been extended to apply to jockeys rigging their own race (18 U.S.C. § 224 (1999)). Responding to rigged television contests, the Model Penal Code (§ 224.9) and eight states have included not only sports but every ‘‘publicly exhibited contest.’’ The Code and three states specified a criminal penalty for any participant who knows that the contest has been fixed.


Modern bribery law has tended to expand enormously those subject to the criminal law, to increase the acts covered, to multiply indirect attacks on bribery, to develop more effective techniques of detecting the crime, to expand federal jurisdiction at home and abroad, to increase the number of prosecutions, and to increase the severity of sanctions. The movement of the law has been the reverse of Henry Maine’s famous dictum, ‘‘from status to contract.’’ The law here has gone from reciprocity to nonreciprocity, determined by status. Its continued expansion could be confidently predicted, were it not for three problems now to be addressed.



Bribery is not normally reported by briber or bribee, nor boasted of. No statistics exist as to the number or amount of bribes or the percentage of transactions affected by them. Consequently, although many historians speak of a government, a country, or an era as ‘‘corrupt,’’ there is no quantifiable evidence on which they rest their judgments. By extrapolation from the disparate data available, guesses conceivably might be made that would compare one regime with another as more or less corrupt. But such comparative guesses have not been developed. Historians often take an era in which there is greater legislation against bribery or greater prosecution of it and conclude that this period was more corrupt than an era without legislative or prosecutorial activity. Nothing could be more fallacious. Greater activity indicates greater opposition to bribery and has no necessary connection with an increase in bribery. To take a contemporary American comparison, were the 1970s more corrupt than the 1950s? No one has done the work that can provide a rational answer to this question.

Since bribery is an unquantified phenomenon, it is impossible to say whether the multiplication of laws and prosecutions is reducing it, keeping even with it, or falling behind. In the absence of a quantitative basis for evaluating the efficacy of criminal law in this area, the success of the law is measured in terms of its symbolic impact. The law is more specially vindicated when a powerful person is subjected to it. Hence bribery prosecutions often have a political aspect.

Prosecutorial Discretion

Prosecutorial discretion determines to a very large degree the application of the law. Discretion exists at the federal level as to state crimes. Virtually any local bribery has an aspect touching interstate commerce and thus could be federally prosecuted. Prosecution depends on decisions by regional district attorneys and by Washington. Discretion also exists at the charging level. For example, a campaign contribution by a corporation, criminal under federal law, can be prosecuted for having been made or accepted (a misdemeanor); for not being reported (a misdemeanor usually treated lightly); for being made by a federal contractor (a felony; most corporations are federal contractors to some extent); for being a gratuity (a more serious felony); or for being a bribe (a very serious felony).

Prosecutors again have discretion to interpret custom to modify the statutes. A Christmas present to a mailman, for example, is a federal felony if the anti-gratuity law is read literally. Prosecutorial discretion saves the law from being absurd. In a more debatable exercise of discretion, no prosecutor charged Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York with a crime for giving large loans, as much as $500,000, to public employees in literal violation of an antigratuity statute. In a more central area of concern, many legislative deals or compromises fall literally within the terms of a bribery statute. The older type of statute, providing that giving must be done ‘‘corruptly,’’ has left the prosecutor to interpret this vague term with the help of custom to exclude the legislative arena.

Historically, prosecutors have depended on chance to bring cases to their attention. To take the example of a particularly elaborate investigation, the congressmen prosecuted in Abscam became targets when criminal middlemen boasted that they could deliver them. No overall plan to test the members of Congress existed. Since the mid-1970s it has been the conscious policy of the Justice Department to give priority to cases involving high federal or state officials—members of Congress, judges, and governors. This exercise of discretion, rationally defensible, could be followed by a second exercise of discretion, to monitor closely the activities of, say, all members of Congress. Experienced observers suggest that almost any area of government, if probed, will yield evidence of corruption. To what extent shall the prosecutor with limited resources wait for an informant? To what extent shall he probe? The bite of the law depends on his decision. The political power resident in his exercise of discretion is substantial. Coupled with the political aspect of many bribery cases, prosecutorial discretion means that bribery, to an extent unusual in the criminal law, is a crime whose prosecution depends on political, but not necessarily partisan, choices.

Rigorism, Cynicism, and Relativism

Reciprocities run through human relations, including the political. They can as easily be removed from society as moisture from the atmosphere. Confronted with their ubiquity, one can take three positions. (1) The rigorist—every bargain, even looked-for reciprocation in the area of political judgments, is wrong. Each judgment is to be made on its merits. The standards applied to judges should apply equally to presidents, legislators, and voters. (2) The cynical— most political reciprocities go uncondemned and unpunished. Legislators logroll, presidents use patronage, voters are rewarded by bills that favor their interest. The isolation of a few specific trades as corrupt is hypocritical pretense. In the main, reciprocities rule. A Marxist view of Western society approaches the cynical, even though actual communist societies afford a basis for even greater cynicism. (3) The relativist—custom determines which reciprocities are bad and which are acceptable. No trade is intrinsically evil. The antibribery ethic is sufficiently enforced by a few spectacular cases showing the kinds of trades our society rejects.

Each of these positions has an effect on the criminal law. The internal dynamism of the antibribery ethic pushes toward rigorism. The result is perceptible in the Model Penal Code and modern statutes struggling with definitions that will not make a criminal prosecutor the judge of legislative compromises and election promises. The cynical view is the inevitable reaction to rigorism when it becomes apparent that all reciprocity cannot be eliminated. This view undermines enforcement and even observance of the law. The relativist position is that of the liberal, comfortable with society as it is, who believes that ideal disinterestedness in political judgments can be encouraged if not guaranteed and that its violation can be vindicated in flagrant instances. The relativist, however, has little reason to condemn corruption abroad and, viewing what constitutes corruption as arranged by social convention, has a small moral investment in the criminal law. The removal of moral fire from the law weakens its efficacy.


There exists, however, a fourth position, the social-personalist one. It holds bribery to be a moral issue, that is, it affects both the good of society and the good of persons—the good of society by its impact on the ideals of the society, the good of persons by involving them in acts unworthy of their nature. A breach of trust and a sale of what should not be sold, bribery violates a divine paradigm set out in Jewish tradition and Christian tradition. Because of its deep moral content, the antibribery ethic requires embodiment in the law.

The social-personalist position denies the cynic’s charges of hypocrisy, insisting that selective, symbolic, and dramatic enforcement is educative. It challenges the relativist’s belief that all is conventional, pointing to fundamental needs for trust, gratuitous action, and disinterested judgment that are protected, although imperfectly and variously. It has affinities with the rigorist position, rejoicing in the expansion of the ethic, especially its belated inclusion of legislators; yet it differs from the rigorist position by rejecting its reliance on criminal sanctions, in particular imprisonment. Rooted in history, the fourth position favors attacking bribery in multiple ways.

In particular, three measures should be considered. (1) Increasing the legal profession’s efforts against bribery. Lawyers have been very frequently involved in modern bribery as advisers, bagmen, couriers, directors, lobbyists, or recipients. Meanwhile law schools, like legal scholars of every era, ignore the profession’s involvement. A key class of participants could be educated, disciplined, and motivated to take a more active stand against bribery. (2) Extending the requirements of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to all corporations as to domestic bribes and political contributions. There is no reason to be more concerned with corruption overseas than at home. The record-keeping provisions and heavy financial penalty of the act are appropriate deterrents to use against all corporations. (3) Relying more on disgrace, censure, and electoral reprisals than on imprisonment. At a time when there are general doubts about incarceration, it is odd to rely on it as a remedy here. Historically, bribery has been punished by shame attached to acts unworthy of human persons.


  1. American Law Institute. Model Penal Code and Commentaries: Official Draft and Revised Comments. 3 vols. Philadelphia: ALI, 1980.
  2. Bond, Edward, ed. Speeches of the Managers and Counsel in the Trial of Warren Hastings. 4 vols. London: Longman, 1859–1861.
  3. Borkin, Joseph. The Corrupt Judge: An Inquiry into Bribery and Other High Crimes and Misdemeanors in the Federal Courts. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1962.
  4. Bracton, Henry de. On the Laws and Customs of England. 2. Translated with revisions and notes by Samuel E. Thorne. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1968.
  5. Cicero, Marcus Tullius. Against Verres. Translated by L. H. G. Greenwood. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1928–1935.
  6. Gregory IX (POPE). ‘‘Decretales’’ (1234). Corpus Juris Canonici, 2. 2d Leipzig ed. Edited by Emil Albert Friedberg and Aemilius Ludwig Richter. Graz, Austria: Akademische Druck und Verlagsanstalt, 1955, cols. 1–927.
  7. Lindgren, James. ‘‘The Theory, History, and Practice of the Bribery-Extortion Distinction.’’ University of Pennsylvania Law Review 141 (1993): 1695–1740.
  8. Lowenstein, Daniel Hays. ‘‘Political Bribery and the Intermediate Theory of Politics.’’ University of California Los Angeles Law Review 32 (1985): 784–851.
  9. McCloy, John; Pearson, Nathan W.; and Matthews, Beverly. The Great Oil Spill: The Inside Report—Gulf Oil’s Bribery and Political Chicanery. New York: Chelsea House, 1976.
  10. Noonan, John, JR. Bribes. New York: Macmillan, 1984.
  11. ‘‘Campaign Contributions and Federal Bribery Law.’’ Harvard Law Review 92 (1978): 451–469.
  12. ‘‘Control of Nongovernmental Corruption by Criminal Legislation.’’ University of Pennsylvania Law Review 108 (1960): 848–867.
  13. Ruff, Charles C. ‘‘Federal Prosecution of Local Corruption: A Case Study in the Making of Law Enforcement Policy.’’ Georgetown Law Journal 65 (1977): 1171–1228.
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