The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed convictions under federal extortion and bribery statutes for an official’s receipt of a gift in return for unspecified future favors. The Sixth Circuit had previously held that extortion prosecutions under the Hobbs Act required proof of an explicit quid pro quo. However, in United States v. Abbey, the Sixth Circuit held that it was sufficient if the public official understood that he was expected to exercise some as yet unspecified influence on the payor’s behalf as opportunities arose.

Charles Abbey was a City Administrator when he accepted the gift of a lot of land from Albert Rizzo, a local land developer. At trial, the government offered no evidence of an express agreement, at the time of the land transfer, that Abbey would in exchange take (or refrain from taking) a specific official act. The evidence did show, however, that Abbey later spearheaded municipal financing for the development of other property owned by Rizzo and Rizzo’s hiring to supervise that development. Abbey was convicted of extortion by a public official under the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951, and of solicitation of a bribe by a public official in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 666(a)(1).

On appeal, Abbey argued that the government had to prove a direct link between the gift allegedly given him and an explicit promise by him to perform a specific, identifiable official act in return. In so doing, Abbey relied heavily on United States v. Sun-Diamond Growers of California, 526 U.S. 398 (1999), in which the Supreme Court held that “a link between a thing of value conferred upon a public official and a specific ‘official act’ for or because of which it was given” was required for a conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 201 because of the “official act” language in that statute. However, the Sixth Circuit noted the absence of any such language in § 666 or the Hobbs Act. The Sixth Circuit reiterated its view that the Hobbs Act requires the government to prove the existence of a quid pro quo, but cautioned that “not all quid pro quos are made of the same stuff.”

The Sixth Circuit cited other Supreme Court precedent for the proposition that “fulfillment of the quid pro quo is not an element of the offense” of extortion and that the parties “need not state the quid pro quo in express terms, for otherwise the law’s effect could be frustrated by knowing winks and nods” (internal quotes omitted). In an interesting footnote, the Sixth Circuit likened a corrupt quid pro quo for purposes of the Hobbs Act to the scene in The Godfather when Don Corleone agreed to do a favor for a supplicant and refused any payment with the caveat “Someday, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me....”

The Sixth Circuit affirmed Abbey’s convictions, concluding that an official is guilty of a Hobbs Act violation when he knowingly accepts a bribe as part of a “generalized agreement to improperly exert his official influence on the payor’s behalf.” Likewise, the Sixth Circuit ruled that a violation of § 666 occurs when a public official “corruptly” accepts something of value intending to be influenced in connection with some future transaction meeting the requisite threshold value. The Sixth Circuit’s full decision can be found at United States v. Abbey, 560 F.3d 513 (6th Cir. 2009).