The Crucial 'Corrupt Intent' Element in Federal Bribery Laws

29 Pages Posted: 10 Jul 2014 Last revised: 24 Feb 2015

See all articles by Brennan Hughes

Brennan Hughes

United States Government - Judicial Branch

Date Written: July 8, 2014


This article focuses on the word "corruptly" found in many bribery statutes, including 18 U.S.C. § 201. I argue that the adverb constitutes an independent element of the crime, and its presence requires the jury to summon its moral intuition to determine whether the behavior that satisfies the other elements of the statutory crime was performed with evil intent. I pay special attention to the problem of campaign contributions as bribes.

It is unfortunate that many courts have effectively read the word "corruptly" out of the statute. The culprit is the Supreme Court’s opinion in Sun-Diamond. In that case, the Court distinguished bribery from illegal gratuities, and explained that the difference between the two was that bribery entailed a specific quid pro quo agreement. I argue that the Sun-Diamond Court’s silence on the corrupt intent element does not mean that the corrupt intent element is satisfied by the mere existence of a quid pro quo.

Instead, I focus on the Supreme Court’s stated preference in Sun-Diamond and Skilling that federal anti-corruption laws should be narrowly construed. Bribery laws must be read narrowly because they threaten to capture a great deal of benign political activity, such as logrolling, vote-trading, and campaign contributions by special interest groups. The corrupt intent element functions to effectively narrow these potentially overinclusive anti-corruption laws by requiring the jury to find that the defendant acted with an evil mind. Although the precise contours of moral corruption will vary case-by-case, the corrupt intent element requires prosecutors to argue a theory of why a given quid pro quo was corrupt and therefore illegal.

To add more meat to the bones of corrupt intent, I make a brief detour through political theory to note how one’s political philosophy will affect one’s determination of whether a given quid pro quo (especially one involving a campaign contribution) is corrupt. I also explain that because bribery is effectively a lesser-included offense of Hobbs Act extortion and "honest services" mail or wire fraud, the corrupt intent element should carry over into these crimes.

Keywords: Bribery, Corruption, Anti-corruption, white collar, white collar crime, corrupt intent, corruptly, 18 u.s.c. 201, program bribery, hobbs act, extortion, color of title, honest services, Sun-Diamond, Skilling, political corruption, campaign contributions, election law, bribe, quid pro quo

Suggested Citation

Hughes, Brennan, The Crucial 'Corrupt Intent' Element in Federal Bribery Laws (July 8, 2014). 51 California Western Law Review 25 (2014), Available at SSRN: or

Brennan Hughes (Contact Author)

United States Government - Judicial Branch ( email )

London, KY 40741
United States

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