Is it illegal to try and bribe someone?
July 22, 2021 1:32 PM   Subscribe

I have two office buildings I want to convert into residences, which would require re-zoning the properties from commercial to residential. I need an adjacent condominium board to approve the re-zoning, and I have no guarantee they'll agree. I was thinking of offering 25k to "help" them decide. In and of itself, would this be illegal?
posted by BadgerDoctor to Law & Government (24 answers total)
This will really depend on your local laws, as well as the exact details of your plan. Spend a few hundred on a consultation with a lawyer to avoid causing yourself problems down the line.
posted by Atrahasis at 1:34 PM on July 22, 2021 [5 favorites]

I've worked with city officials, some of them elected. People get them on their side with a lunch, a friendly word, even take-out sandwiches. The first time I saw this I was staggered by how cheap it is to buy people.
It's not about buying their obedience, it's about convincing them on an unconscious level that you're a good guy, someone who's provided food and deserves a favor in return.
Even if buying favors isn't illegal - and I suspect it will in some way get you into trouble - having a meeting and providing food, or taking food to one of their meetings, is cheaper and doesn't give the impression that either side is being dishonest.
Also it doesn't lead you into deeper waters, which you may someday regret.
posted by AugustusCrunch at 1:52 PM on July 22, 2021 [13 favorites]

Even if it's completely legal, I don't know why that would be your first step - you have no guarantee that they won't agree to it either. I'd try to get what you're doing put on their board agenda and go in and talk to them about it and see what their concerns are, if any. Some of their concerns might be baseless. The board itself might be beholden to their residents enough that giving the board alone a bribe wouldn't really do anything if the other residents know you need approval from their board and can't understand why their board approved it, which might lead to the board being sued.

I think you'd have far fewer problems just doing it the right way.
posted by LionIndex at 2:00 PM on July 22, 2021 [7 favorites]

I'd also clarify whether the zoning board requires approval from neighbors, or whether it's just something they prefer to have, or maybe the process just requires notification of your neighbors and they can appeal. I've seen the latter two situations frequently; the first one would be pretty extreme. You might get more bang for your buck just having a consultation with a land-use attorney.
posted by LionIndex at 2:18 PM on July 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Lionindex:

Thank you for your answers.

This condominium board is notoriously anal and intransigent; in the past they've budged only after having lawsuits filed against them.

At any rate, bribing them wouldn't be my first step. I'd love to keep things 100% above board, but, per my lawyer, I'm not very optimistic about succeeding by doing the "right" thing.
posted by BadgerDoctor at 2:29 PM on July 22, 2021

I’m not even remotely close to being a lawyer but I just took my company’s anti-bribery/corruption training and “attempting to bride” someone counts as bribing someone in their books. I’m sure this will be a situation that depends on your exact location, but that’s one data point.
posted by raccoon409 at 2:42 PM on July 22, 2021 [3 favorites]

Atrahasis has the correct answer -- your lawyer should be able to tell you the answer to this question.
posted by bruinfan at 2:42 PM on July 22, 2021

Best answer: If you don't get the land re-zoned what the alternative uses for it?

I'd be tempted to draw up two proposals for redeveloping those lots: one that's what you want to do (but that requires board approval) and one that does NOT require board approval but is designed to annoy them as much as possible.

Then request a meeting with them, present both proposals, and ask for feedback.
posted by Metasyntactic at 3:03 PM on July 22, 2021 [18 favorites]

Best answer: Around half of US states make "private" bribery a crime. (In the other half, you have to be bribing a public official.) So you've got about a 50% chance of it being a crime! But, boy, if this condo board is "notoriously intransigent" about rezonings, and you attempt to bribe them, all it takes is one member of that board going to the cops. Bribes are a one-on-one undertaking, not a one-on-a-whole-condo-board-full-of-laypeople-plus-their-lawyer undertaking. And possibly more to the point, even if your state doesn't recognize private bribery, if any condo owner found out the condo board took a bribe to consent to the zoning change, they could sue about it, and your zoning change could be tied up in litigation for years.

It may be perfectly legal in your state to offer the condo board $25,000 in exchange for their acquiescence to a zoning change in an above-board fashion with appropriate notice to the condo owners, public votes, etc. -- there's nothing inherently flawed about entering a contract for that, it's an exchange that benefits both sides. (Maybe they could use the $25,000 to add soundproofing on the west wall or whatever, to mitigate what they view as the negatives.) It may not be legal, because zoning can have incredibly technical rules about what invalidates a zoning change, and paying someone to agree to a zoning change may invalidate the zoning change, depending on the local laws and circumstances.

Otherwise, your money might be better spent donating it to a local "YIMBY!" (Yes In My BackYard!) group that fights restrictive zoning codes that let the neighboring condo board kibosh an otherwise-acceptable rezoning.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:05 PM on July 22, 2021 [5 favorites]

I'd be tempted to draw up two proposals for redeveloping those lots: one that's what you want to do (but that requires board approval) and one that does NOT require board approval but is designed to annoy them as much as possible.

Then request a meeting with them, present both proposals, and ask for feedback.

Bingo. I've also had success with reporting building permit violations committed by intransigent neighbors to the building inspection division.
posted by LionIndex at 3:07 PM on July 22, 2021 [4 favorites]

Are you sure that you need to rezone? Multi-family buildings may be "by right" in a commercial area. In the western US, it's pretty typical to see offices, condos, and apartments occupying commercial zone districts.
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 3:52 PM on July 22, 2021

Best answer: IANAL. IANYL. YMMV. But generally this seems OK.

In my Canadian neck of the woods this happens fairly often: Property Owner A wants Property Owner B to agree to something that has value to A but not B, so A offers to sweeten the deal with some money. The agreement could be an easement, permission to swing a crane over an existing building, use underpinnings during construction, whatever.

It's normally not called a bribe (even if it technically is one), and I think your choice of words is colouring the advice you're getting.
posted by ripley_ at 3:53 PM on July 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I work in commercial real estate and have participated in successful efforts to obtain planning variances and property re-zoning.

I would be very surprised if a jurisdiction required neighbor approval for a re-zoning. Typically, there will be one or more public hearings on the matter (usually either City Council, or Planning Commission, or both in sequence) and you will be required to notice (or the jurisdiction will notice) every property owner in a certain radius prior to the public hearing(s). Planning Commissioners don't like to get yelled at by neighbors during a public hearing, which is where the intransigent condo board can exert influence. There may also be a procedure for them to appeal the jurisdiction's re-zoning approval, which could tie things up for a while.

We try to head off any neighbor objections by holding community meetings prior to the public hearings, with food and pretty renderings of what we want to build and messages about being good neighbors and increasing property values. Sometimes we will also have one-on-one meetings with influential neighbors like your condo board.

During such a meeting, you could admit to the board that the remodeling work to convert your buildings from office to residential might cause some minor inconvenience to their owners. Like maybe their landscaping will get trampled, so you are including $25K in your budget to contribute to the board's capital improvement fund to mitigate your conversion's impact on their landscaping. That's not a bribe! It's established business practice! We've offered to pay costs to move people out during construction, and ended up having those people speak in support our approval requests at public hearings.
posted by rekrap at 4:03 PM on July 22, 2021 [15 favorites]

Best answer: Most condominium boards have ethics policies that forbid self-dealing. Get a consultation with another lawyer, maybe one who had success pressuring them via lawsuit filing? If you're interested in purchasing influence, scroll up to AugustCrunch's answer.

This is a frustrating situation. But don't try to slip ten grand *directly* to the board, when, say... offering to beautify the green space between your proposed conversions and the existing condominiums would increase the value of both properties, by reducing noise pollution from the parkway and addressing the post-rain standing-water issues in their parking lot? And provide for a great "ribbon-cutting photo" plus flattering local feature article opportunity for that director campaigning for ___, or some other appealing chin music based off hyper-local interests? Aim for a smaller outlay from you, and limited exposure for you.

Everyone's a winner when they hitch a wagon to new neighbor BadgerDoctor's star.
posted by Iris Gambol at 4:04 PM on July 22, 2021 [6 favorites]

It is worth discussing with a real estate lawyer but I do not think this is a bribe.

I assume what you are proposing is that you will offer money to the adjacent condominium (not to the board members in their personal capacities which is indeed a private bribe in the way that Eyebrows mentioned).

Generally for something to be a bribe, you have to attempt to influence someone to make a decision that they are making on behalf of other people to whom they have some duty. Offering the owners of the condominium compensation for the inconvenience they may incur through the conversion is different because the owners *are* the people to whom the duty is owed in the first place.
posted by atrazine at 4:04 PM on July 22, 2021 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I'm thinking of something I once heard a girlfriend tell me about one of her girlfrineds who was sleeping with a married man; "If he will cheat on his wife with you, he'll cheat on you with someone else." Can't imagine there's a lot of honor in the whole "bribery thing" whether it's "technically" legal or not. At that point, it really comes down to the long view of you protecting you own butt,
posted by CollectiveMind at 4:12 PM on July 22, 2021

In the UK, all inducements and attempting to induce people, whether public office or private company is illegal. Many other state jurisdictions worldwide follow this level of anti-corruption effort. (I've liked a comment here so I'm contributing to the thread and so need to clarify my involvement.)

We're sophists, so "tax evasion" is a crime and "tax avoidance" is what people who have money it do minimise their tax contribution. Some "facilitation payments" are legal for enabling the processing of paperwork in some jurisdictions.

I don't think I can advise about what to do to aid your cause, but I can advise against bribery. Speak to a lawyer in your jurisdiction, and use some of that money to make a lot of people have a more pleasant environment if it will at all help your case be more persuasive.
posted by k3ninho at 4:22 PM on July 22, 2021

I would consider anonymizing this post.

I know a little bit about the criminal law and ok I know a lot about the criminal law and the people who have responded above don't know nearly enough about the criminal law to respond because HOLY SHIT don't do this under any circumstances.

Don't make corrupt payments. Don't be part of that problem and don't expose yourself to the consequences (but as a stranger to you i care more about the first part). Don't do it, don't propose it, don't talk about it on the Internet, don't debate it with strangers, but, most importantly, don't do it.

I can almost feel people on Metafilter of all places trying to give you permission to do this and I am not here for that. They are not your friends and they don't know what they are talking about. Zip this up and move along for GOD'S SAKE AND YOURS. JFC!
posted by clownschool at 4:30 PM on July 22, 2021 [6 favorites]

Even if, by chance, it's not illegal for you to offer , it's probably illegal for them to accept. So then you've made the situation even more awkward for no good outcome ...
posted by mccxxiii at 5:39 PM on July 22, 2021

I think the done thing is to engage professionals (architects, lawyers, etc) who are enmeshed with the local gentry. You pay extra for the well-connected ones who happen to golf with the condo board and city council. Then you donate to their fundraisers and get introductions at their galas to establish your bona-fides. This is the legal way to "grease the wheels" and takes a bit of time so they know you're "reliable."
posted by dum spiro spero at 5:43 PM on July 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

You want to redevelop two buildings that will require some kind of zoning variance and you're trying to get advice here?

Get a lawyer, full stop, end of story.
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:50 PM on July 22, 2021 [8 favorites]

This feels so unethical that, even if it's not illegal, it will alienate you from people who could help you really improve things.
posted by amtho at 5:52 PM on July 22, 2021

What changes will be necessary to accommodate residential use? Does the road need repair? Should there be an upgrade, like a crosswalk with flashing yellow lights? Can you put in sidewalks or a walking path someplace? Those are things you could offer as adjustments for the change in status. Realistically, many developments are required to make such changes. Also, lawyer with experience.
posted by theora55 at 6:33 PM on July 22, 2021

The thing is that, in most states, a condo board will have fiduciary duties to the condo corporation. This means that even if your state doesn't recognize private bribery, your offer to individual members is liable to cause all kinds of problems.

However, entering into a contract in which the board agrees not to oppose the rezoning in exchange for a payment to the condo should be manageable. With no private benefit for a condo board member, there's unlikely to be an issue. But I'd still have a RE lawyer consult and draw up the agreement.
posted by praemunire at 6:34 PM on July 22, 2021

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