Monday, December 08, 2003

Remembering the old country
In a post on the Nick Smith vanishing bribery case, Mark Kleiman brings up the possibility, mentioned by one of his correspondents, that offering bribes on the floor of Congress might be protected speech.

Smith, you will recall, claims that, in the waning hours of the all night vote on the Medicare bill, unnamed Republican Party and business interests “made offers of extensive financial campaign support and endorsements for my son Brad who is running for my seat." Smith’s chief-of-staff clarified “extensive financial campaign support” to mean $100,000. When Smith refused, the same unnamed interests promised to destroy Brad Smith’s political chances. Now that the Justice Department is looking into the allegation as an attempted bribe, Smith is backing off of the story.

So what’s this about protected speech? A reader of Kleiman’s asked whether the bribe attempt would be exempt from prosecution under the "speech and debate" clause because it happened in the House chamber. These are the laws that allow congresspersons to slander each other on the fllor of Congress without facing any legal repercussions. It seems unlikely to me that an overt felony could be protected, but another reader of Kleiman’s wrote in with some court precedents, where bad behavior on the floor was indeed deemed protected under the speech and debate laws (though none of these cases involved bribery).

I’m not sure what standing state cases would have for setting precedent in such a matter, but I do know of one such case. In 1981 Alaska State Sen. George Hohman, (D-Bethel) offered Rep. Russ Meekins, (D-Downtown Anchorage), a share of $30,000 for Meekins' support on the purchase of two firefighting aircraft. Meekins turned Hohman in. Hohman was tried, convicted, ejected from the Senate, and served a year in jail and ten years probation. Hohman was banned from holding state office for the duration of his probation, but his loving constituents elected him to the Bethel city council as soon as he got home. I left Alaska before Hohman finished his probation, so I’m not sure if he managed to stage a comeback to the Senate.

I miss Alaska politics. For entertainment value, they’re world class. Alaskan politics can stand proudly in the same ranks as Texas, California, and Albania.

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