If you’re concerned that an action you’ve taken may be construed as bribery, you should be asking if you can go to jail or prison for a bribery offense.
The daunting answer is yes, as demonstrated by the sentencing of a former top aide to former Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.
According to ABC affiliate KTRK abc13.com, William-Paul Thomas was sentenced Monday, February 5, 2024, to 1 year and 1 day in a federal prison (not yet assigned) and fined $5,000. Upon his release from prison, Thomas will be on supervised release, also known as probation, for 3 years.
Thomas was sentenced for his part in a May 2020 bribery scheme involving his taking of a cash bribe from the restaurant, bar and nightclub business in exchange for using his influence to allow such venues to remain open during COVID-19 restrictions.
Such actions reportedly included allowing a bar to change its classification to a restaurant in order to stay open. According to CBS affiliate KHOU Channel 11, Thomas also was accused of pressuring an official of the Houston Fire Department to pass a restaurant during its inspection so that it could gain a temporary certificate of occupancy.
While an investigation of such events proceeded via the U.S. Department of Justice, its FBI agents approached Thomas in November of 2020 to seek his cooperation, and he reportedly agreed to help. Thomas wore a wire to certain city functions in order to bolster the FBI’s case, a case that eventually could lead to charges against others.
Guilty plea was followed by sentencing hearing
In July of 2022, Thomas pleaded guilty to a federal corruption charge of conspiracy tied to the bribery. That plea was sealed, and a day after making it—as the investigation continued—Thomas resigned from his position with the city, citing medical reasons.
After his sentencing hearing on February 5, KHOU reported that Thomas’s defense lawyers cited his cooperation with authorities and the fact that his bribe reportedly was under $1,000 while asking for probation with no prison time.
However, prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office said during the hearing that Thomas also had accepted gift cards, meals and invitations to events in exchange for helping 2 other unnamed businesses.
Citing his 37 years of public service, Thomas pleaded with the judge at the hearing to give him probation, and not a prison term, while expressing remorse for “the harm my actions have caused.”
However, Judge Andrew Hanen denied probation and issued the prison sentence of a year and a day, along with the $5,000 fine.
Federal bribery punishments can be worse
When facing a federal or state charge, each defendant can exercise and be protected by his or her constitutional rights. However, these may not come into play as game-changers when a defendant, such as Thomas, voluntarily pleads guilty to a charge and then seeks leniency from the court.
Yet, at least in his case, Thomas was sentenced to a prison term far below federal sentencing guidelines. Under federal law, the crime of bribery (which can involve offering a bribe or accepting a bribe) can bring punishments ranging from 5 to 10 years in federal prison and high fines.
With a prison sentence below that, Thomas is not alone. According to the United States Sentencing Commission, 228 bribery offenders were sentenced below punishment guidelines in fiscal year 2022. The commission has also cited a slight increase in the number of bribery offenders in recent years.
Defenses against a bribery charge
When facing a bribery charge, your legal defenses will depend on the individual circumstances of your case.
For instance, depending on the case, a defense attorney or defense lawyer may argue that giving someone a gift was not a matter of bribery if there was no understanding or offer to receive something in return.
For the felony crime of bribery to have occurred, the person who gave the gift must have done so with the specific intent of receiving some kind of benefit as a result—or what’s known as “quid pro quo.” Without such an intent, no crime has happened.
In most cases, even if you had a vague hope or expectation of receiving a favor in return, that is not sufficient to construe the gift as a bribe. Instead, there must have been a clear and specific intent to receive compensation in exchange for the gift.
Again, other defenses will depend on the circumstances of the case.
Bribery is a non-violent “white-collar crime”
Although bribery is a kind of non-violent offense—such as money laundering or fraud—that’s known as a white-collar crime, punishments can be severe even for such offenses.
Indeed, punishments for white-collar crimes can vary widely, and they can become harsh depending on the nature of the offense and its scale.
In Thomas’s case, the scale of the offense was relatively small, given that it involved a cash bribe of under $1,000, along with gifts and favors. That scope may have contributed to his receiving a 1-year sentence, which was well below federal sentencing guidelines of a minimum of 5 years in prison and even up to 10 years in prison.
Other white-collar crimes can bring even higher punishments than the federal guidelines for bribery, especially in combination.
For instance, a former police chief of San Angelo, Texas, was sentenced to over 15 years in prison after his conviction for 3 counts of honest services mail fraud and 1 count of bribery.
Under United States Code Title 18 Section 1346, the federal crime of honest services fraud involves “a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.”
A felony crime, it carries a maximum penalty of up to 20 years in federal or state prison, as well as a fine of up to $250,000, with 3 years of supervised release (probation) required after the prison term. When a financial institution is involved, the maximum prison sentence for honest services fraud can rise as high as 30 years.
Get a skilled Houston-area white-collar crime lawyer
As you can see, even non-violent white-collar crimes can bring extreme punishments, which is why it’s vital to engage a knowledgeable, experienced and skilled white-collar crime defense lawyer.
Persons living in the Houston area of Harris County or adjoining Montgomery and Fort Bend counties can reach out to the award-winning Neal Davis Law Firm for help.
Our law firm has received honors and awards for its work handling white-collar criminal cases. Contact us today to arrange a private consultation for your case.