Most New York public servants are pretty clear – or think they are – on what constitutes a bribe. It involves something of value from someone (whether you solicited it or not) in exchange for doing something for them or for a business or organization they represent in your professional capacity.
For those in positions of authority in a city or state, it often involves awarding a contract to a party without going through the required process or considering which applicant is best. Any time a public servant uses whatever influence they have to do something in exchange for something of value, that’s illegal. We’ve all heard of inspectors who “look the other way” regarding safety and other violations at building sites in exchange for money or other things of value. This is just one way that bribery can harm the public.
It’s crucial to note that both the acts of soliciting or asking for a bribe and offering or providing one are illegal under state and federal law. The parties don’t have to follow through for it to be illegal.
How are gratuities different than bribes?
Gratuities or gifts are less often recognized as a type of bribery. However, they are – and they’re illegal.
Gratuities are often less obvious than bribes. They can sometimes be mistaken for tokens of appreciation or friendly gestures. That’s why in many lines of work, there’s a maximum value for what you can accept from a customer, client or anyone else you’re doing business with.
It’s crucial to know what the limit is in your position. Some public employees make it a policy not to accept anything – including a cup of coffee – from someone they’re doing business with. While you probably don’t have to go that far, it’s generally better to err on the side of caution.
It’s not uncommon for people to start out by giving a public employee gifts like nice meals or tickets to a Knicks game as a “thank you” for doing their job. If the employee doesn’t balk at that, they may move on to larger amounts that are clearly bribes.
It can be easy to get caught up in accepting gratuities or bribes if you’ve been told that this is simply how business is done in New York City. Unfortunately, not realizing you’re breaking the law isn’t a valid defense. If you have questions or concerns or are already facing a criminal charge, your best move is to get legal guidance.