When Political Favors Become Illegal
If you’re trying to find some help with a property easement, or a city license, chances are you’ll contact your representative on city or county council. But one member of Summit County Council is facing prison for helping her constituents. Ideastream’s Mark Urycki reports on how far is too far.
5th District Councilwoman Tamela Lee is running for reelection but she was unable to hand in the paperwork last week because a federal judge has barred her from any contact with county employees. Lee has been indicted on six counts, including bribery, for helping three Akron-area men with various legal issues. She told the Beacon Journal that her husband, who’s from Yemen, told her they were family.
But US Attorney Stephen Dettelbach says there’s a point when help becomes illegal
“Aren’t public officials supposed to be doing things for their constituents? The answer is yes, they are. They just don’t do them in exchange for bribes and gratuities. Look, you don’t tip your elected officials for doing their jobs.”
The federal law refers to bribery of public officials as “accepting things of value for official acts. “ A number of people who considered themselves personal friends of former Cuyahoga Commissioner Jimmy Dimora were surprised to find out that giving him gifts, even if he reported them, was illegal.
This past summer the line got a little blurry when a federal appeals court in Chicago threw out 5 of the 18 counts that put former Illinois Governor Rob Blagojevich in jail. The court ruled that trading political favors is something that politicians do with each other. It cited cases of President Eisenhower doing so.
Some of the payments to Tamela Lee were allegedly bundled as campaign contributions. Dettelbach says that’s OK, until it becomes a quid pro quo
“The key difference is not the difference in whether a public official should help their constituents, that’s what we expect. They’re just not supposed to be on the take to do it.”
Lee and the three men have pled not guilty.