The Extortion Game

Q. "Business as usual" for our construction firm is like this: We have to pay off City Hall to get a building permit, compensate the police to let us unload building materials, acknowledge the union official in order to get construction workers, and reward the city engineer to certify the building. Finally, we have to pay the tax examiners to let us declare all these payments as a business expense!

We can't survive without giving in to this extortion. Is it ethical for me to continue in this business?

A. Sounds like you are in a pretty trying situation. And don't worry -- I won't let anyone know how much you offered to pay me to give a lenient reply.

Judaism's view of bribery is clear: "Don't accept bribes, for bribery blinds even the wise and distorts even the words of the righteous". (Exodus 23:8.) Although the verse refers to a judge, the rationale applies to anyone in a position of public trust. A person may rationalize accepting a bribe and convince himself that his judgment will be unaffected, but the Torah tells us that even a wise and righteous person can't avoid having his point of view influenced by a bribe.

So accepting a bribe can never be tolerated. It is equally wrong to pay a bribe to sway an official to betray his public trust. This amounts to "a stumbling block before the blind" (Leviticus 19:14), a moral snare that encourages him to sin. And when an official exceeds his authority, then whatever service he performs is really unauthorized. This amounts to stealing from the public, which Jewish tradition tells us is the worst kind of theft.

When we have to pay someone to get him to do what he is supposed to be doing anyway, we enter a gray area. There is no betrayal of public trust, because instead of inducing him to stumble, we are urging him to do the right thing. Yet even this kind of payment has dangers.

First of all, if everybody becomes reconciled to bribes, it becomes impossible to rectify the situation. Open bribery undermines society's moral fiber.

Secondly, it's easy to cross the line into criminal activity. It's hard to believe that the building inspector who charges a thousand dollars to approve a sound building wouldn't accept ten thousand dollars to approve an unsound one. The same goes for the builder who will find cutting corners in building and paying off the inspector an attractive bargain.

This distinction between paying someone to do something he shouldn't and paying him to do something he should is entrenched in American law in the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Payments "influencing any act or decision of [a] foreign official in his official capacity" are strictly forbidden; conversely, there is an exception to the prohibition for payments to "expedite or to secure the performance of a routine governmental action" such as obtaining permits.

In your case, payments for routine things like building permits, getting workers, and obtaining approval are not necessarily unethical, if you are not transgressing any laws.

Paying off the police is very demoralizing for society, and is much worse. Since you face extortion, perhaps it could be justified if you scrupulously move construction materials and waste in strictest accordance with accepted practice.

Payments to the tax officials clearly cross the red line. Your firm is paying them to betray their public trust to supervise your accounts; furthermore, you take advantage of this betrayal to gain an illegal tax break.

The Jewish way has traditionally been to stand up to moral challenges, not to evade them. After all, it's easy to be an angel if nobody ruffles your feathers. But it's still true that some kinds of business have to be left to scoundrels, and perhaps construction in your city is one of them.

Sources: Tosefta, Bava Kamma, 10:14.