Compensation to Members of Congress - 18 U.S. Code § 203
Let's review the federal crime of illegal compensation to Congress Members and other government officials in matters affecting the government.
The United States Code Title 18, Section 203 is a federal law that prohibits members of Congress, federal officers, and other individuals in positions of power from receiving compensation for services rendered about matters affecting the government.
This law is designed to protect the integrity of our democratic system by preventing conflicts of interest and corruption. If you are convicted of receiving such compensation while holding such an office or offering compensation to someone holding office, you could face up to 5 years in prison.
18 U.S.C. 203 says, “(a) Whoever, otherwise than as provided by law for the proper discharge of official duties, directly or indirectly—
(1) demands, seeks, receives, accepts, or agrees to receive or accept any compensation for any representational services, as agent or attorney…
(A) at a time when such person is a Member of Congress, Member Elect, Delegate, Resident Commissioner, or Elect or
(B) at a time when such person is an officer, employee, or federal judge in the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the Government, in relation to any proceeding, application, request for a ruling or other determination, contract, claim, controversy, charge, accusation, arrest, or other particular matter in which the United States is a party or has a direct interest before any department, agency, court, court-martial, officer, or any civil, military, or naval commission; or
(2) knowingly gives, promises, or offers any compensation for any such representational services rendered or to be rendered at a time when the person to whom the compensation is given, promised, or offered is or was such a Member. Elect, Commissioner… shall be subject to the penalties set forth in section 216 of this title.”
Title 18 U.S.C. 203 - Explained
This federal law specifically seeks to remove potential conflicts of interest with government officials of influence, both while they hold office and when they are about to do so, such as when they have been elected but not yet sworn in.
The law prohibits these officials from soliciting or accepting compensation from individuals or entities related to any proceeding, request for a ruling, or other matters in which the United States is a party or has a direct and substantial interest.
In simpler terms, it is illegal for these individuals to accept payment for advocating on someone else's behalf in matters related to the government. This includes everything from lobbying efforts to legal representation.
The law specifically applies to the following offices:
- Members of Congress or Members of Congress elect;
- Delegates or delegates elect;
- Resident Commissioners or Resident Commissioners elect;
- Any federal judge, official, or employee currently serving in any of the three branches of government (executive, legislative, or judicial);
- "Special government employees" (i.e., temporary appointments, paid and unpaid) in certain circumstances.
Other things to know about this law:
- 18 U.S.C. 203 makes it a crime both to receive illegal compensation as a government official and to offer it. This means that both the government official and the entity offering the compensation are subject to the same penalty if convicted.
- With this law, prosecutors do not have to prove willful intent to convict you of the crime. Penalties are more severe for those who engage in the conduct "willfully" as opposed to "incidentally." However, you can still be convicted for receiving or offering illegal compensation, even if you were unaware you were committing a crime.
What Are Some Examples?
EXAMPLE 1: Betty, a high-ranking official in a federal agency, is approached by the CEO of a corporation who offers a significant sum of money to use her influence within the agency to expedite their permit application process. If Betty agrees to this arrangement and accepts the payment, she can be charged under 18 U.S.C. 203.
EXAMPLE 2: Jake, a member of Congress, is offered a lucrative speaking engagement by a lobbying firm. The firm intends to leverage Jake's influence to sway policy decisions favorable to their clients. Suppose the Congressman accepts the payment for the speaking engagement with an understanding that he is expected to advocate on behalf of the firm's clients. In that case, he could potentially be violating Section 203.
EXAMPLE 3: Imagine a scenario where an officer in the U.S. military is retiring and transitioning into a consulting role for a defense contractor. As part of his consulting agreement, he is expected to leverage his connections within the military to secure contract approvals for his new employer. If he accepts this compensation, he could be contravening Title 18, Section 203.
What Are the Related Federal Laws?
18 U.S. Code Chapter 11, bribery, graft, and conflicts of interest have several federal laws that are related to 18 U.S. Code 203 compensation to members of Congress, such as the following:
- 18 U.S.C. 201 - Bribery of public officials and witnesses;
- 18 U.S.C. 202 - Definitions;
- 18 U.S.C. 204 - Practice in United States Court of Federal Claims or the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit by Members of Congress;
- 18 U.S.C. 205 - Activities of officers and employees in claims against and other matters affecting the Government;
- 18 U.S.C. 206 - Exemption of retired officers of the uniformed services;
- 18 U.S.C. 207 - Restrictions on former officers, employees, and elected officials of the executive and legislative branches;
- 18 U.S.C. 208 - Acts affecting a personal financial interest;
- 18 U.S.C. 209 - Salary of government officials and employees;
- 18 U.S.C. 210 - Offer to procure appointive public office;
- 18 U.S.C. 211 - Acceptance or solicitation to obtain appointive public office;
- 18 U.S.C. 212 - Offer of loan or gratuity to financial institution examiner;
- 18 U.S.C. 213 - Acceptance of loan or gratuity by financial examiner;
- 18 U.S.C. 214 - Offer for procurement of Federal Reserve bank loan and discount of commercial paper;
- 18 U.S.C. 215 - Receipt of commissions or gifts for procuring loans;
- 18 U.S.C. 216 - Penalties and injunctions;
- 18 U.S.C. 217 - Acceptance of consideration for adjustment of farm indebtedness;
- 18 U.S.C. 218 - Voiding transactions in violation of chapter; recovery by the U.S.;
- 18 U.S.C. 219 - Officers and employees acting as agents of foreign principals;
- 18 U.S.C. 220 - Illegal remunerations for referrals to recovery homes, clinical treatment facilities, and laboratories;
- 18 U.S.C. 224 - Bribery in sporting contests;
- 18 U.S.C. 225 - Continuing financial crimes enterprise;
- 18 U.S.C. 226 - Bribery affecting port security;
- 18 U.S.C. 227 - Wrongfully influencing a private entity's employment decisions by a Member of Congress or an officer or employee of the legislative or executive branch;
What Are the Penalties for 18 U.S.C. 203?
If you are convicted of violating Title 18 U.S.C. 203, the penalty range differs according to whether you broke the law willfully or incidentally.
- For general violations: You could face up to $100,000 in fines and up to 1 year in prison.
- For willful violations: You could face up to $250,000 in fines and up to 5 years in prison.
What Are the Defenses for 18 U.S.C. 203?
Perhaps we can argue there was a lack of knowledge or intent. Your attorney may argue that you were unaware your actions constituted a violation of the law or that they did not intend to violate the law. This defense won't necessarily result in acquittal but may result in a lesser sentence.
Perhaps we can argue there was an absence of official duty. The compensation received was not for services rendered in relation to any particular matter in which the United States is a party or has a direct and substantial interest, as required by the statute.
Perhaps we can argue there was no compensation received. If no compensation was received for the services rendered, this could serve as a defense.
Perhaps we can argue there are exemption clauses. Certain exemptions exist within the law, such as payments for professional services not connected to the official's government role. If these can be proven applicable, they could serve as a defense.
Contact our law firm to review the case details and legal options. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, California.