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Russian presents and emoluments in kind

This is a cautionary tale for U.S. diplomats and businessmen traveling in modern Russia: It is almost impossible these days to stay in any upscale hotel in Moscow or elsewhere without one’s room being bugged and recorded on tape ­— in sound and, sometimes for more distinguished visitors, in visual media format. (I speak with some experience of this.)

Furthermore, if you occupy one of the better suites, it is highly probable that you will be awakened every half hour or so by a knock at the door and then the apparition at your door of a gorgeous Russian blonde, followed by a red-head, then a brunette. These ladies, apparently a familiar form of hotel room service, work for the Kremlin government, who are concerned for your every comfort and satisfaction during your stay.

Suppose you are a visiting businessman wishing, say, to build in Moscow a hotel tower or monument to yourself, and you are innocently unaware of the implications of accepting this kind of Russian hospitality. Whether the business venture goes well or not, the trouble may come later, as you are led to realize that you have left behind certain sound and visual recordings of confidential events that may surface at a later date by a “leak” in cyberspace or by other means.

Suddenly you find yourself beholden to the Kremlin leadership in a number of ways for a number of reasons. You begin to adjust your outlook and language concerning relations with your friendly Russian hosts. This can look like a conflict of interest, of course, but really it’s a shared coming together of mutual interests. There may be domestic problems to be dealt with, first of all at home, and then, perhaps, with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, who require reporting to the IRS of all gifts and income received, especially from a foreign source, and the relevant circumstances for tax determination reasons.

If you are currently in political office, or planning to run for such office, you have another little problem with the U.S. Constitution: Article I provides that “No Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept any Present or Emolument of any kind whatever from any foreign State.” Now given the time zone difference between Moscow and Washington, D.C., it is difficult to get prior congressional consent in a timely manner, but it is certainly something you should keep in mind.

This presents a difficult legal question: Exactly what kind of “present or emolument” does the Constitution have in mind? Therefore, a word to the wise: As travel authority Rick Steves likes to conclude his tourism reports, “Keep traveling,” but do so with care and caution. 

Sharon resident Anthony Piel is a former director and general legal counsel of the World Health Organization