Did JPMorgan Try to Bribe Dem Power-Brokers? (Depends What Your Definition of 'Bribe' Is)

Did one of the largest banks in the United States accidentally acknowledge an attempt to bribe members of Congress?

A widely published Reuters story reported that four major U.S. banks have threatened to withhold expected campaign contributions from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee unless “Democrats, including [Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth] Warren and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown ... soften their party's tone toward Wall Street.”

But the article specifically notes: “JPMorgan representatives have met Democratic Party officials to emphasize the connection between its annual contribution and the need for a friendlier attitude toward the banks, a source familiar with JPMorgan's donations said. In past years, the bank has given its donation in one lump sum but this year has so far donated only a third of the amount, the source said.”

A person familiar with JPMorgan's donations—who may or may not be a JPMorgan representative—told a Reuters reporter that JPM told party officials: Be more friendly to banks if you want us to give you the remaining two-thirds of the contributions you were expecting from us.

Even shorter: We are offering you a specific sum of money for specific action—which may simply amount to mouth-shutting and smiling—from members of the Senate.

18 U.S.C. § 201 is extremely clear on the legal definition of bribery:

(b Whoever—

(1) directly or indirectly, corruptly gives, offers or promises anything of value to any public official or person who has been selected to be a public official, or offers or promises any public official or any person who has been selected to be a public official to give anything of value to any other person or entity, with intent—

(A) to influence any official act; 

Specifically an official act includes:

(3) the term “official act” means any decision or action on any question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy, which may at any time be pending, or which may by law be brought before any public official, in such official’s official capacity, or in such official’s place of trust or profit.

Will JPMorgan face any investigation, let alone penalty, for their attempted bribe? It would be naïve to think so. Yet the only defense for this sort of corruption seems to be that it happens all the time.

Our media and political culture have limited the definition of corruption to gifts of Rolex watches, bundles of cash in the freezer, or falsely reporting mileage expenses. While obviously those committing these offenses should be held accountable, the banks' action here is far more damaging in the long term to our politics because its acceptance ensures their success in manipulating the public policy process.  

The banks' confidence in their ability to get away with something that smells like bribery is such that they appear to have telegraphed their quid pro quo offer to a major wire service. But even that understates how broken our system has become. Washington pundits are preoccupied with the question of whether the banks' threat to withhold contributions will impact the pending presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton. No one seems to wonder whether it's a problem if the banks, as they appear to, have bought the system.

Our system has become so broken that those participating in it can ignore corruption when it is staring them right in the face. Or worse, they are just waiting to profit from it themselves.