July 24, 2007

Speech events in a kickback case

Readers of Language Log will recognize that linguists deal with language priniciples and structure on many levels, including language sounds, morphemes, words, sentences, semantics, pragmatics, speech acts, discourse, variation, and change. Here I'll illustrate how the use of another unit of language, the speech event, works in the forensic linguistics context.

The words uttered on a tape recording in a sting operation are not always what they may seem. Take, for example, the case (back in the 80s) of a Texas legislator who was approached by an undercover FBI agent who claimed to be representing a large, well-known insurance company. The agent's plan was to get the legislator to open the bidding on that state's insurance program so that his company could obtain the contract. So far,  so good. But the agent made two offers simultaneously, one legitimate (to make a campaign contribution) and one illegal (to split the agent's commission for getting his company in -- a kickback). More to the point here, the structure of the business speech event sheds light on what was wrong with the government's case. A much shortened version of their conversation follows:

Agent: There will be a savings of approximately a million bucks.
Legislator: Anytime you can save the state a buck by God, I'm for it.

 (agrees to the idea of saving the state money)

Agent: We want to make a contribution to your campaign.

Legislator: Let's get this thing and try to take care of it first. Then let's think about that.

          (tries to  separate the business offer from the campaign contribution. Note his use of "this" and "that" here)

Agent: I will, whatever you want to run. $100,000 going in and we can prepare to put a half a million.

          (sounds like a  campaign contribution, but wait...)

Legislator: Anytime you can show me  where you can save the state money well, by God, I think that's what part of my job is, try to save the state.

          (back to the business discussion, not the campaign contribution)

Agent: There's $600,000 every year. I'm keeping 600 and 600 whatever you want to do with it to get the business.

          (the money is his to do with what he wants, for the insurance company to get the business, a quid pro quo)

Legislator: Our only position is we don't want to do anything that's illegal or anything to get anybody in trouble and you all don't either. And that's as legitimate as it can be because anytime somebody can show me how we can help save the state some money, I'm going to bat for it. But you know it'll be reported.

          (refuses anything illegal, goes back to the business proposal, and says he'll report any potential campaign contribution)

Agent: Why do you have to report it?

Legislator: Well, I don't want to get into no damn tax-- (interrupted by agent)

Agent: You can report it later on. Put it away because we're talking about -- (interrupted by legislator)

Legislator: No, no, no.

          (refuses putting it away and not reporting it)

This was a business conversation. Many language crimes, such as kickbacks, bribes, or solicitations to murder, take place in a discourse format or genre of a business conversation. Linguists call formats such as this, "speech events." Dell Hymes originally called them "communicative events" but the term, "speech events," has become more common. Quite simply, speech events are structured activities that are governed by rules or norms for the use of speech. Participants in such events use language that reflects the way people belong to or are involved in the social life of that specific community. Examples of speech events discussed in the past include telephone conversations, lectures, prayers, jokes, business meetings, and interviews. Each has a discourse structure that  identifies it  for what it is.

The speech event of a business meeting has six phases:

1. Introduction: ritualized greetings, small talk, establishment of mutual authenticity

2. Present the problem: need for services or products in exchange for payment; the "why we are here" part.

3. Present a proposal to solve the problem: offer of services or products for payment, or vice versa, plus negotiation.

4. Completion: verbal acceptance or rejection of the offer and negotiation of phase 3, ending with verbal agreement or disagreement; if agreement, usually a handshake or signing of a  contract.

5. Extension: if agreement is reached, discussion about future possible deals takes place.

6. Closing: ritualized closing talk, thanks, small talk; if no agreement, the closing is briefer.

As simple as the structure of a business speech event may seem, when criminal proposals are on the table, things may get confusing for the prosecution. And that's where a linguist can be helpful. Undercover agents typically propose an illegal activity to targets to see if they will bite. If the targets accept the offer, such as a kickback, bribe or show willingness to have somebody killed, they are dead meat. But sometimes things are not that simple, making linguistic analysis useful. In this sting case, the agent confused the proposal phase by offering to give the legislator a  contribution for his forthcoming reelection campaign  (perfectly legal in that state at that time), while simultaneously offering him an illegal kickback.

The government heard the kickback offer but apparently failed to notice how the legislator separated the two offers, refusing the kickback, but leaving open the possibility of a campaign contribution after they took care of the legitimate business offer to save the state money. Nevertheless, the legislator was indicted and went to trial.

In terms of the structure of a business speech event, it is clear that the conversation discussed here never got through the phase 3 proposal to do business and they clearly didn't reach the phase 4 completion phase. The legislator agreed only to the idea that  saving the state money would be a good thing, part of phase 2. Nothing illegal about that. In phase 3, the kickback offer was presented, contaminating the tape with whatever illegality existed here. Somehow, the prosecution overlooked the fact that the legislator disagreed with the kickback. It apparently took his agreement to save the state money as evidence of his guilt and it also overlooked his disagreement to the agent's suggestion to not report the possible campaign contribution. In short, the prosecution appeared to be so enamored with the possibility of a kickback that it was blinded to what actually happened in this business speech event.

If it had examined the conversation from the perspective of a business meeting speech event, the government could have saved much time and taxpayer money on this prosecution. The case went to trial and the jury wisely acquitted the legislator. Good intelligence gathering and good intelligence analysis could have prevented the whole thing.

Posted by Roger Shuy at July 24, 2007 02:45 PM