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The fine line between bribery and extortion

On Behalf of | Mar 12, 2020 | Firm News

Extortion and bribery crimes periodically make national news. High-profile cases can get caught in the public’s collective imagination, impacting famous reputations for years.

Many people remember when former “Late Night” host David Letterman was targeted by a former producer in a $2 million extortion plot. In turn, the case embroiled Letterman in a sex scandal of his own.

Bribery played a large role in the infamous Watergate scandal during the Nixon administration. It stands as one of the most infamous examples of bribery in U.S. history.

Most crimes of bribery and extortion are, well, boring

Bribery and extortion are both serious white collar offenses, and they don’t only happen on a large-scale world stage. They’re often smaller and more insidious, cropping up in schools, law enforcement, small businesses, and local politics.

The main goal of either is to coerce someone else using money, intimidation, or threats. However, while there is a lot of overlap, the two are distinctive from one another. Where bribery and extortion diverge can be confusing.

Intention is everything

The main difference between bribery and extortion is intent. A bribe occurs when the offender offers money in exchange for a favor, whereas someone who commits extortion leverages sensitive information and threats to get money.

For example, if someone offers police cash in exchange for being let go despite having been caught committing a crime, that would constitute bribery. If someone threatened to release potentially damaging information about another person, unless that person paid a sum of money, that would be considered extortion.

In cases of extortion, which is also known as blackmail, the person making the demand is the guilty party, and the other person is usually considered a victim (although in many cases, the information at stake can create legal and ethics concerns for the victim). In bribery, however, both parties can be guilty if the bribe is accepted.

When definitions become ambiguous

It’s possible for the two crimes to appear similar to one another, or even overlap. For instance, if a bribe is refused, the person offering the bribe could leverage threats and intimidation tactics to either coerce the other person into accepting the bribe against their will. In an extortion case, the victim can cross into bribery territory if there is a cover-up of illegal activity.

A lawyer can help determine which of the two is most applicable to your case if you find yourself embroiled in illegal coercion of any sort. The important thing is to remember that there is typically a point of distinction where the definition is more clear. That’s the point when taking action is critical.