This week’s guilty pleas surrounding the defunct Mississippi Beef Plant likely have left political campaign contributors scratching their heads.

When did it become illegal to make a substantial donation to a sitting official because you hoped you’d need a favor down the line?

Apparently, it’s been illegal for a while.

If you doubt it, check out the U.S. Code, Title 17, section 666 (a)(2).

In the Beef Plant case, it was a decision by Georgia company executives Robert Moultrie and Nixon Cawood to give $45,000 in the midst of knowing the project was having difficulties. They talked to each other – and apparently a few others – about making the contribution in hopes then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove might help them out, if they needed him down the road.

Before all was said and done, the executives, some company employees and a company political action committee had given $95,000 to the Musgrove re-election campaign. Haley Barbour won the 2003 election, and the Beef Plant closed about a year later, three months after it opened.

Mississippi law bans corporate campaign contributions in excess of $1,000. And under federal and state law, Musgrove violated no laws when he accepted the donations regardless of Moultrie and his associate’s intentions. Nowhere in their earlier indictments and their new pleas does it suggest Musgrove knew the money was obtained illegally.

What the Georgians did is considered an unlawful “gratuity.”

Earlier this week, longtime political observer Dr. Marty Wiseman of Mississippi State University expressed surprise with the charges against Moultrie and Cawood.

“I thought that was the reason most people give political contributions” – for access, he said.

How it works
It’s not about the gift, it’s about what your intentions were when you gave it.

If you say you want something, you’re in trouble, even if you don’t tell the candidate you want it.

So, how do you avoid jail for this?

“Don’t say anything to anybody and don’t use the phone” to talk about it, advises Professor George R. Blakey with Notre Dame School of Law.

He’s also quick to assess that this law “chills the hell out of anybody making a campaign contribution.”

Potential donors also should be aware, he said, that a contribution is a bribe if you want something and the recipient knows you want it and gives it to you – that’s the “quid pro quo” the bribery statute refers to.

In the situation involving the recipient of a gratuity, Blakey also warns that candidates can get into trouble with a potential extortion charge if they use too much “arm twisting.”

For example, a candidate says, “If you want to do business here, give me money.” That is extortion.

And so, if you’re planning substantial campaign gifts, Blakey advises you to do so without any intent to influence that officeholder.

Blakey, who has been involved in appeals for former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, convicted on corruption charges that accused him of trading contributions for political favors, said sometimes circumstantial evidence is enough to win a conviction on a gratuity charge.

“Juries will think, People don’t give up good money and not expect something for it,'” he said.

The law professor says the U.S. Supreme Court likely will have to tackle the issue and draw some lines to restrain eager prosecutors since campaign donations have been judged an extension of a person’s First Amendment free-speech rights.

Accusations using the “gratuity” law “don’t have to stick too much to affect an election,” Blakey observed. “Our politics now are using the criminal justice system to embarrass people.”

NE MS Daily Journal