There's no disputing that the feds are going after a lot of state and local officeholders these days. Since 2002, both the number of public corruption cases and the number of FBI agents devoted to such cases has increased by more than 50 percent. But is it because there's been a sudden spike of mischief in office? Or is it more an epidemic of prosecutorial zeal and ambition? Those are not easy questions to answer. But they're increasingly important to ask.
What's clear is that we are dealing with a national phenomenon. In the past three years, the FBI's long-running undercover operation in Tennessee (code named "Tennessee Waltz") has led to the conviction of a dozen officials, including several state senators and a state representative, the most recent of them in April. In New Jersey, U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie has prosecuted more than 125 state and local officials, without a single acquittal. In North Carolina, U.S. Attorney George Holding successfully prosecuted House Speaker Jim Black in a corruption scandal, followed this spring by the conviction and expulsion of one of Black's top lieutenants — the first expulsion of a legislator in that state since 1880. And in Alaska, a major bribery scandal involving an oil services company has already led to seven convictions, including that of former state House Speaker Pete Kott.
Corruption cases always have been, and always will be, part of the public-sector landscape. A prosecutor seeking to press such cases can usually find plenty of work — and prosecutors have shown they can obtain an indictment from a grand jury without presenting anything close to an airtight case. Given the vast discretion prosecutors maintain in picking their targets, they are subject to regular complaints that they are interfering with the political process and the normal operations of government. Democrats still single out Ken Starr, the special prosecutor who published an X-rated account of President Clinton's love life, in their pantheon of villains. For their part, many Republicans have excoriated Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago and special counsel in the Valerie Plame investigation, for his successful prosecution of former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
Public corruption cases may not be the most certain way for a prosecutor to advance his career — they create plenty of enemies even when, or especially when, they're successful — but they do guarantee bigger headlines than conducting drug seizures or even sending a series of murderers to death row. That sort of motivation was starkly on display in 2004, when e-mails leaked from the office of Thomas DiBiagio, then the U.S. attorney in Maryland. He demanded that his staff bring no fewer than three "front-page" corruption indictments by Election Day. Given the current climate, it's become the first line of a vigorous defense for public officials to suggest they are the latest victims of politically-motivated investigations.
On the other hand, there are safeguards. To carry off a partisan prosecutorial vendetta really does require something of a conspiracy, with a U.S. attorney having to bring on board his or her own career staff, FBI agents and other investigators, the media, a judge and a jury. It's such a tough trick to pull off that even David Iglesias, a U.S. attorney who was told to speed up prosecutions of Democrats and ultimately was fired by Gonzales, is skeptical about the existence of organized partisan scalp-hunting. Iglesias, who just published a book about his experience, concedes there was an "attempt to politicize the Justice Department both in Washington and out in the field," but argues that it failed. In his biggest case, which led to the conviction of two New Mexico state treasurers, Iglesias says that "our referral wasn't from the Republican Party, it was from a state employee caught copying U.S. currency on an office photocopier."
There is always a risk that prosecutors will want to score points by aiming at the ripe target of elected leadership. Yet in the vast majority of cases, government officials who are formally charged with crimes end up either entering into a plea bargain or being convicted. Even critics of the system concede that it remains a necessary corrective to the temptations of exploiting public office. And when politicians do get caught, they normally have themselves, much more than the prosecutors, to blame. "People in public office, particularly legislators, ought to know they are in somebody's gun sights," says Alan Rosenthal, an expert on legislatures at Rutgers University. "If it's not an opponent or a newspaper, it's the prosecuting attorney."
Monday, August 11, 2008
The Corruption Puzzle - Investigations of Elected Officials and Plea Bargaining
Governing magazine has an interesting article on public corruption investigations, entitled "The Corruption Puzzle." In the wake of the indictment of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens on charges related to his failure to disclose gifts of services and construction, this article gives an overview of the recent increase in federal investigations of state and local elected officials. Here is part of the piece's introduction.