John Bonar stated that on the 2nd September 1786 he had breakfast with James Stein. The conversation covered the rivalry between the Scottish and English distillers and Stein also complained bitterly of harassment from Excise Officers who had every opportunity “to steal the secrets of his trade”. On finishing breakfast Stein slipped a parcel into Bonar’s pocket before hastily making off. Bonar called after Stein stating “Mr Stein, if this is as I suspect, be assured you shall hear farther of it”. It was a suspected, the parcel contained £500. Bonar immediately reported the incident to James Balmain, a senior Excise Officer, who wrote to Stein on the 5th September stating that further action would be taken and he considered the incident an insult to Mr Bonar and the public.
Stein replied on the 20th September expressing his surprise that Mr Bonar should be insulted and the money was merely recompense to the Excise for the loss of revenue arising from a court case preventing the use of hydrometers by customs in which Stein had played an active part. Stein also stated he had no favour or expectation from Mr Bonar and all he wanted was to be on good terms. He hoped his intention of gratitude would not be misconstrued. Sounds plausible – no – this was not the first time Stein had attempted to bribe Bonar. In 1781 Stein had given Bonar £150 (equal to £30 000 in today’s terms) with the promise of £300 annually. Bonar returned the cash and no further action was taken.
The Lord Advocate (prosecution) stated there could be no doubt the intention of the money was to influence Mr Bonar in the execution of his duty in favour of Mr Stein and his friends. He pointed out the enormity and magnitude of the offence and the effect it could have on the revenue of the country especially when depleted by war.
Stein’s defence was conducted by a brilliant advocate, Henry Erskine. Erskine’s defence came from all angles, from the sublime to the ridiculous. He first pointed out Bonar’s position as an Excise Officer was of no importance to Stein thus giving Stein no reason to bribe Bonar. He then turned the table on Bonar by stating it was in his interest to interpretate the money as a bribe as customs officers were paid a percentage of assets / discrepancies found. He quoted a case of a customs officer seizing £30 000 worth of brandy of which he received 50% = £15 000 a huge sum (3 million today).
Erskine then went on to report on various statutes in respect of perjury and bribery stating it was the intent that was the crime and as there was no proof Stein’s actions were nothing more than a gift, no crime had been committed.
It was reported at the time it was impossible to follow Mr Erskine’s defence through a variety of twists and turns, “suffice to mention, that energy of expression, that point and brilliancy of wit and argument”.
Lord Justice Clerk informed the jury it was his duty to give his view on the case and he concluded because of the manner the cash was given there was a strong presumption of intent, but this was only his opinion and the jury must judge for themselves.
The following day the jury returned their verdict: the delivery of £500 to Mr Bonar – proven, but did not find the intention of seducing and corrupting Mr Bonar proven.
Stein walked free from the court.