When Is A Bribe Not A Bribe?

(May 2016)

When is a bribe not a bribe?  Or when is a bribe not a crime?  In this political town, where everyone is connected and where everyone is going along to get along, these distinctions are not just matters of law.  They are questions that address primal forces of the nature in Philadelphia.

The recent run of local corruption investigations has been notable not just because they have resulted in jail time for prominent political actors.  They are perhaps most intriguing because many of the cases center around interactions that have been considered politics as usual in a town that has long had engraved on its municipal tombstone, the cruelly accurate epitaph, "Corrupt and Contented."

When Is A Bribe Not A Bribe? 

Bribery is defined as the offering, giving, receiving, or soliciting of something of value for the purpose of influencing the action of an official in the discharge of his or her public or legal duties.

There may exist a dramatic notion that bribery in Philadelphia is some sinister figure approaching a public figure with an offer he can't refuse, after which, the noble official decides to reluctantly accept the bribe in exchange for performing some action that he would not otherwise perform.  Or, perhaps, it is seen as some shady public official telling an upright citizen that the only way that she can expect governmental action would be in exchange for a payout and the citizen reluctantly agrees to the shakedown.

But, that neat quid-pro-quo initiated by one bent on doing wrong and agreed to by a morally tortured partner is certainly not the way Philadelphia politics work. 

In Philadelphia, politics are about relationships -- long-term and mutually beneficial relationships.  In a town where public service is a family business for so many and where too many benefit from the spending of public money, the mixing of the personal and the political is free and easy.

Philadelphia is a city where thousands of votes can be swayed by the say-so of a single ward leader, where district council members are permitted to have veto power over virtually any activity that occurs within their district's borders, and where a few influential non-elected actors hand pick our leaders.  

Nobody is persuading anybody to stay for a one-night stand.  It is not a leave-the-money-on-the-nightstand situation.  No, it's a long-term relationship where everybody gets what they want for as long as they want.  Why bribe the cow, after all, when you are getting the bilk for free?

When Is A Bribe Not A Crime?

After testifying at the corruption trial of since-convicted Congressman Chaka Fattah, former Governor Ed Rendell took a dim view of outsiders' contempt for Philadelphia's peculiar institution.

"Federal prosecutors don't understand the political process," he said. "They think everything is done for ulterior motives. They're very cynical. We're not all bad. We're not all evil."

On the witness stand, however, Rendell was the one who -- perhaps inadvertently -- explained exactly how the mutually beneficial relationships work.

"People think that people who run for office don't have friends, that we do everything for some cynical purpose," Rendell said during testimony at Fattah's trial. "But of my 10 best friends, five are people I never knew before entering politics. I would do anything for them."

That's the way it works and that's exactly the problem.

What could make positive change?  Public funding of political campaigns could limit the influence of moneyed interests.  Same-day voter registration, open primaries, internet voting, and an Election Day holiday could increase voter turnout and reduce the power of local political bosses.  Elimination of political choke points like “Councilmanic Prerogative” could reduce the bribertunity baked into Philadelphia’s political culture.   

Electing officials who would NOT do anything for their political friends wouldn’t hurt, either.

When is a bribe not a bribe?  When everyone involved considers it part of the political process.  

When is a bribe not a crime?  At least this week, jurors continue to decide that a bribe IS a crime.  That’s one small step toward ending a corrupt and contented legacy.