Criminal Justice

Is $1,200 Bribe Worth $5K? Zoning Inspector Gets Conviction Tossed on Valuation Issue

What’s the value of a bribe? A federal appeals court considered the question when it overturned the conviction of a Chicago zoning inspector who accepted two $600 bribes to issue certificates of occupancy for four homes.

Dominick Owens was convicted under a federal statute with a $5,000 payment threshold, report the Associated Press, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Federal Criminal Appeals Blog. The government failed to prove the value of the bribes met the $5,000 requirement, according to the opinion (PDF) by the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The federal bribery statute bars agents of federally funded entities from taking anything of value for influence “in connection with any business, transaction, or series of transactions … involving any thing of value of $5,000 or more.” According to the opinion by Judge William Bauer, the law is ambiguous on how to measure value, and federal appeals courts have adopted a variety of approaches.

Under a “value of a bribe” approach, courts look at how much someone was willing to pay and how much an official was willing accept. Under this method, the bribe amount is a proxy for value.

The government argued for a second, “benefit of the bribe” approach that measures the value of the bribe to the developers and homeowners.

The government pointed to estimated construction costs of up to $250,000 for each home and mortgage notes for the properties ranging from $200,000 to more than $600,000. Since the homes could not be occupied without occupancy certificates, the government argued, the reasonable inference was that the certificates involved something worth at least $5,000.

The appeals court disagreed. It’s unclear from the government evidence, the court said, whether the value was the saved cost of performing repairs for work that is not up to code, or whether the value is the time saved by obtaining an expedited certificate of occupancy.

“Because the government failed to put forth any evidence linking the mortgages and the construction costs to the value of the issuance of the certificates, it failed to prove that the subject matter of the bribes in question here met the statutory threshold,” the opinion said.

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