When does a gift become a bribe?

Amid a storm of corruption scandals, more professionals are questioning the ethical nuances of gifts.

As members of Congress scramble to take cover amid a storm of corruption scandals, professionals of all stripes have fresh reasons to question whether the business-related gifts they give and receive are truly innocent.

Norms vary as to what constitutes a bribe, say ethicists and other experts on the subtle, sometimes manipulative, power of gifts. As a result, individuals in positions of responsibility and trust are likely to get entangled - perhaps tragically - in the absence of explicit policies for what is acceptable.

"If you don't know where the lines are, you may not be able to make the best decision," says Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California. Having clear rules in place, she says, "makes it easier when you are tempted."

On Capitol Hill, a plea bargain from Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff has attracted the glare of an unwelcome spotlight. Wary that Mr. Abramoff's legendary largesse might constitute bribery in a Department of Justice probe, dozens in Congress have rushed to donate or return hundreds of thousands of dollars linked to him. Such steps, however, won't undo the times when members allegedly unwound in Abramoff's skybox seats at sporting events or flew to such destinations as the Northern Mariana Islands on his dime.

Congressional rules cap noncampaign-related gifts at $50 per item and $100 per year from any individual, including lunches or other meals.

Abramoff's case threatens to build upon the confessed shame of US Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) of California, who pled guilty in November to charges of accepting a luxury yacht and other gifts from private firms seeking government contracts. And outside Congress, charges of bribery in the past year have taken down a city councilor in San Jose, Calif., a mayor in Chicopee, Mass., and Chicago's city clerk.

Amid this climate, some professionals are taking steps to ensure that even traditional gifts don't create conflicts of interest.

In medicine, the prescription-drug industry now bans its representatives from doling out gifts worth more than $100 each to physicians, and doctors' spouses are no longer welcome at industry-sponsored "educational" dinners in restaurants.

About 400 physicians and the 60,000-member American Medical Students Association are urging colleagues to go further and take no gifts whatsoever from drugmakers, lest their independence of judgment come into question.

In 2004, New York City joined other school districts that have begun restricting gifts to teachers. The policy of capping gift values at $5 in New York resulted after parents complained that students were getting special treatment in exchange for high-priced gifts.

Hard and fast rules, however, tend to get blurry in international business settings. Even Fortune 500 companies with laudably firm policies have trouble in this area, says Peter Madsen, executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Applied Ethics and Political Philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

In Asian countries, for instance, refusing a gift is often considered unthinkably rude. And in some less-developed nations, foreigners are sometimes expected to "pay to play."

"Relativism is rampant ... and when you're talking business, cultural relativism becomes a really big problem," Mr. Madsen says.

Multinational corporations, he says, "engage in what we would call a bribe, although perhaps elsewhere it's not [called that], but they do it nonetheless to get the business. So there's all of this, what we would call, 'corruption in government'.... But if you impose your values elsewhere, you're told you're practicing cultural imperialism. So you can't win."

Even in the US, where bribery is said to be less brazen than in some other countries, not all agree at what point a gift becomes a bribe.

For Nadler, any gift given with "an expectation of compensation" has crossed the line into bribery.

Another view holds that a gift becomes a bribe only when the expected compensation is "specific," says Mark Osteen, editor of an essay collection titled, "The Question of the Gift." Decisionmakers need to start declining gifts long before they reach that level, he says.

"When you're in power and someone is giving you a gift, it's pretty difficult for it not to be tainted with some kind of expectation," says Mr. Osteen, professor of literature at Loyola College in Baltimore.

"I would think that a truly ethical person in power - whether it's a politician, a person above you in a job, a religious figure, or a police officer - would want to steer away from that kind of thing because ... the person who gave it is going to expect something back, whether it's specified or not."

Having a no-gifts policy works best, Nadler says. But in situations where a gift cannot be refused, such as one from a foreign host, she suggests accepting it and then publicly donating it to a charity.

Concerning the power of gifts, no ground is so holy as to be immune. At Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, Senior Rabbi David Wolpe notes that the oral and written Judaic traditions emphasize the moral duties of the not-yet-corrupted person who might be tempted to take a bribe.

He points to Exodus 23:8, which warns that "a bribe blinds those who see and twists the words of the righteous."

Consequently, he says he accepts neither monetary gifts nor anything more "extravagant" than, say, a briefcase or a necktie.

"I'm in a much better position than the politician is, because what I dispense is not monetarily valuable," Rabbi Wolpe says.

Yet when making judgment calls, such as evaluating whether bar mitzvah applicants have met minimal study requirements, he appreciates feeling indebted to no one.

"I don't want anyone to be able to say to me, 'How could you say no? I gave you this,' " Wolpe says.

"I don't want it to be about what was given to me. I want it to be about the issue.... Even if they give a large gift to the synagogue, I get that, you know, 'We gave such a big gift to the synagogue, how could you do this?' But at least that gives me one level of removal because I can say ... 'The synagogue promotes exactly the values that I'm trying to enforce here.' "

To reduce corruption in Congress, the activist group Common Cause is proposing a ban on privately sponsored travel for Congress members and their staffs, as well as a ban on taking personal gifts.

Currently, "no one follows [gift rules] because no one has been checking" to see if rules are being followed, says Michael Surrusco, ethics campaign director at Common Cause.

Yet at this point, he says, Congress still has a long way to go. Among the 535 members of Congress, Mr. Surrusco says he's not aware of one who insists that staffers pay their own way when dining with lobbyists.

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