It is an honor to be here with you this afternoon.
In the year 1906, which was a little more than a century ago – and three years after the Commonwealth Club was founded – San Francisco suffered the famous earthquake and fire that was one of the worst disasters in our nation’s history. Hundreds, if not thousands, of lives were lost, and the landscape of this great city was changed forever.
The city that suffered and emerged from that great quake and fire in April 1906 was of course very different from the one we see today—photos of turn-of-the-century San Francisco depict a world in which gaslights and horse-drawn carriages were still common.
But the differences between San Francisco then and now go a lot beyond the physical look and feel of the city. The San Francisco of 1906, like many other American cities at the beginning of the last century, struggled with pervasive corruption. Just how pervasive it was might surprise even a hardened cynic today. An excerpt from a 1906 newspaper editorial gives some sense of the scope of the problem. This is an excerpt from the editorial:
“Nothing in the history of anarchy parallels in cool, deliberate usurpation of authority this latest exhibition of lawlessness in San Francisco. Government is seized to overthrow government. Authority is exercised in defiance of authority. The criminals, accused of felony, after inviting investigation and pretending to assist, have shown their hypocrisy by committing an act of anarchy which, while it might be tolerated for the time being in San Francisco, would result in the execution of these men in any government of Europe.”
Pretty warm rhetoric even by today’s internet standards.
The events that inspired this editorial were pretty astonishing. The mayor was traveling in Europe, apparently on a goodwill mission trying to convince insurance companies to honor their obligations to clients whose property had been destroyed by the quake and fire. While the mayor was out of the city, his deputy (who was acting as mayor in his absence) fired the district attorney, who was then conducting a broad-ranging investigation into corruption at the highest levels of the city government, including the mayor’s office itself.
In his place, the acting mayor had appointed a political boss who, by most accounts, was the man most responsible for the general corruption of city government. Fortunately, this power-grab failed, the district attorney held onto his post, his investigation went forward, and that resulted in what would come to be known as the “Graft Prosecutions” – but not before an assistant district attorney (and former federal prosecutor) was shot by a would-be assassin in open court, and the city itself was on the brink of civil unrest.
The ultimate results of San Francisco’s Graft Prosecutions were mixed; the very fact that they were undertaken in the face of such fierce resistance marked a key milestone in the history of this city and indeed the country as a whole. San Francisco was not alone: its struggle with public corruption in the early part of the last century was mirrored in cities around the nation, and at the Federal level as well.
It was also in 1906 that President Theodore Roosevelt delivered his now-famous “Man with the Muck-Rake” speech, in which he declared: “My plea is not for immunity to, but for the most unsparing exposure of, the politician who betrays his trust, of the big business man who makes or spends his fortune in illegitimate or corrupt ways. There should be a resolute effort to hunt every such man out of the position he has disgraced.”
Roosevelt spoke so forcefully about the need to fight corruption because he understood the threat that public corruption poses to representative government.
We are, as we proclaim repeatedly, a nation of laws, not men. And sometimes we preoccupy ourselves almost to the point of obsession with adjusting and changing and – as people say in Washington – tweaking procedures so that every exercise of judgment is subject to a check and a balance, or at least something that looks like a check and a balance, in an effort that at times seems intended to make government come close to what every physicist knows is impossible in the physical world – and that is a perpetual motion machine that can run itself.
And to a great extent, despite the tone of the last sentence, that is a worthy and proper effort. Our founders fought for and won independence so that we could receive the blessings that flow from that system of government, including equality before the law and freedom from arbitrary and capricious government action.
But the survival and prosperity of a government of laws depends in great measure on the integrity of the men and women who pass, enforce, and administer the laws by which we are governed. And so it is one thing to acknowledge the persistence of corruption; but it is quite another to become inured to it, to simply accept it as inherent in the nature of things or, worse still, as just another cost of doing business.
Public corruption can inflict damage that is not only costly but also profound. When a public servant at any level of government exploits his or her office for improper purposes, the damage is measured not just in dollars and cents but also in erosion of the public trust – upon which depends the survival of our system of government.
We fight, investigate and prosecute public corruption to ensure that those who hold public office live up to the public’s trust, and to build the public’s confidence in the very idea of government, without which the government cannot function.
The investigation and prosecution of public corruption is therefore among the highest obligations of law enforcement, and it should come as no surprise that I consider it to be one of the top priorities of the Department of Justice. In recent years, the Department’s career prosecutors and criminal investigators have been engaged in a renewed effort to pursue corruption at all levels and in all branches of government.
The Department’s renewed commitment to the investigation and prosecution of public corruption is reflected not so much by an increased case load – though the Department has, in fact, brought more public corruption cases in recent years – as in the quality, complexity, and profile of the cases we have successfully pursued. In investigating and prosecuting these cases, the Department works closely with the FBI – which currently has more than 600 agents dedicated to public corruption matters, up from 358 in 2002 – as well as other law enforcement partners at the federal, state, and local levels.
The Department’s recent public corruption investigations have resulted in convictions of federal officials in all branches of government, as well as numerous state and local officials.
At the federal level, just last month, defense contractor Brent Wilkes was sentenced to 12 years in prison for his involvement in what the Washington Post called “the most brazen bribery conspiracy in modern congressional history.” Wilkes funneled cash, mortgage payments, cars, meals, luxury travel, and even prostitutes to former Congressman Randall “Duke” Cunningham in return for the Congressman’s assistance in steering contracts to Wilkes’ company.
The corruption of Congressman Cunningham was so blatant that he actually had a “bribe menu” that informed contractors how much it would cost them to secure a defense contract. A $16 million defense contract, according to the menu, required payment of a $140,000 bribe and a luxury yacht, with the bribes escalating by $50,000 for each additional million dollar increment on a military contract. The former congressman pleaded guilty and has cooperated with prosecutors in their ongoing investigation. He is now serving an eight-year prison term. Wilkes’ company was not the only one to benefit from a corrupt relationship with Congressman Cunningham. The Department has also secured the conviction of Mitchell Wade, whose defense contracting firm collected millions of dollars in federal contracts as a result of its ties to Cunningham – ties that were the direct result of illegal payments to the former Congressman that included more than $1 million in cash, valuable antiques, and a boat. Wade’s efforts to tilt the procurement process in his company’s favor extended beyond his payments to Congressman Cunningham: Wade’s company hired the son of a Defense Department official charged with overseeing the company’s work for that Department, and then later hired the official himself. Wade’s company also sought to broaden its influence in the appropriations process by making nearly $80,000 in illegal campaign contributions – contributions that Wade hoped would lead to still more earmarks benefiting his company.
Federal corruption need not be as blatant as Cunningham’s “bribe menu,” however. Less overt than the straight-up, quid-pro-quo bribe, but every bit as insidious, is the kind of corruption that exchanges a steady stream of benefits in return for a favorable course of official actions. A prime example is the Department’s ongoing and wide-ranging investigation into the activities of the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, which has resulted in more than 10 convictions, including those of Abramoff himself, former Congressman Robert Ney, and several former senior congressional staff members. The investigation revealed that Ney and others on his staff solicited and accepted a stream of things of value from Abramoff and others, all with the intent to be influenced and induced to take official action. The list of things Ney received, and what might be called the swag, included the following:
- international and domestic trips including a trip to play golf in Scotland in August 2002, with total trip costs exceeding $160,000, paid for by Abramoff and his clients; a trip to gamble and vacation in New Orleans in May 2003, with total trip costs of approximately $7,200, paid for by Abramoff and his clients; and a trip to vacation at Lake George, N.Y., in August 2003, with costs paid by lobbyists exceeding $3,500;
- frequent meals and drinks with total costs exceeding many thousands of dollars, primarily at Abramoff’s restaurant, which was called Signatures, in Washington;
- tickets to concerts and sporting events using Abramoff’s box suites at venues in the Washington and Baltimore areas, such as the MCI Center (now known as the Verizon Center), FedEx Field, and Camden Yards;
- tens of thousands of dollars of campaign contributions and in-kind campaign contributions in the form of free fundraisers.
In exchange for these benefits, Ney admitted that he agreed to take and took the following actions:
- supporting and/or opposing legislation at Abramoff’s request, including attempting to insert four separate, non election-related amendments that were sought by Abramoff and his clients into election reform legislation known as the Help America Vote Act;
- supporting the application of and issuing a license to one of Abramoff’s clients involving a multi-million-dollar contract to install wireless telephone infrastructure in the House of Representatives; and
- contacting personnel in federal agencies in an effort to influence the decisions of those agencies, including telling the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development that Ney’s number one priority was Native American Indian Tribal housing because that was an issue important to Abramoff’s clients.
In his plea agreement, Ney also admitted to charges that he had accepted thousands of dollars worth of gambling chips from a foreign businessman.
On three separate occasions, Ney and staff members accompanying him each received thousands of dollars worth of gambling chips from foreign businessman for use at private casinos in London. As a result, Ney eventually pocketed more than $50,000.
As these facts demonstrate, although Ney had no finely calibrated “bribe menu” that set forth the various prices at which his services could be bought, his betrayal of his duty to his constituents was no less serious than Congressman Cunningham’s. Both men exploited a position of trust for personal gain.
The Department’s Abramoff investigation also demonstrates that no single branch of the federal government has a monopoly on public corruption. In addition to the congressional officials described above, the Department also secured the conviction of several Executive Branch officials, including Deputy Secretary of the Interior J. Stephen Griles, former chief of staff of the General Services Administration David Safavian, who lied about their ties to Abramoff or otherwise obstructed the investigation into Abramoff’s activities.
The Department has had similar success in combating public corruption at the state level. Earlier this month, the Department obtained the seventh criminal conviction arising out of an ongoing investigation into public corruption in the State of Alaska. The convictions have included three former elected members of the state house of representatives (including a former speaker of the house), a chief of staff to a former governor, and three high-ranking executives with a major Alaska oil-services company. The convicted individuals made or received thousands of dollars in corrupt payments as well as offers of employment in return for official actions – including votes in the legislature – that would benefit the company.
A key part of the company’s scheme to secure the legislators’ services was a suite at a hotel in the state capital, close by the legislature, in which the company’s senior executives would meet with legislators. Over the course of these meetings, the executives would make cash payments and openly discuss job offers to the legislators in return for the lawmakers’ agreement to advance the company’s legislative agenda, which included a major new pipeline. The corrupt purpose of these meetings was made explicit by one legislator who was heard to say, simply: “You’ll get your pipeline . . . and I’ll get my job.”
Another example of the Department’s success in combating corruption at the state level was the conviction of former Illinois governor George Ryan – a conviction that was recently affirmed by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Governor Ryan and members of his family received thousands of dollars worth of illegal cash payments, loans, gifts, vacations, and personal services. In return for these payments – and hundreds of thousands more paid to a close associate – Ryan knowingly took actions in his official capacity to award state contracts to benefit the personal and financial interests of his associates. Ryan also knowingly permitted his associates to participate in the governmental decision-making process and provided them with material, non-public information relating to prospective governmental decisions.
The investigation that culminated in his conviction began many years earlier, following a horrific accident on a Wisconsin expressway. A piece of a truck’s undercarriage came loose on the highway and punctured the gas tank of another vehicle – a family van carrying the Willis family – which caused a fiery wreck. Six of the nine Willis children were killed in the accident. It was later learned that the driver of the truck that caused the accident may have paid a bribe for his Illinois commercial driver’s license. The driver, who spoke little English, had been unable to understand warnings from other truckers about the unsafe condition of his vehicle before the crash. The accident spawned an investigation into corruption in Illinois secretary of state’s office, which oversaw the issuance of licenses, and eventually broadened out to include Ryan’s conduct as both secretary of state and governor. Governor Ryan’s conviction serves as an especially stark and tragic reminder of the very real costs of public corruption.
The investigation and prosecution of public corruption cases like the ones I’ve just described – involving public officials in every branch and at all levels of government – will continue to be a top priority for the Department. Such cases, however, do not constitute the entirety of the Department’s anti-corruption efforts. The Department’s efforts extend beyond our borders to include investigations and prosecutions of companies engaged in corrupt business practices abroad, as well as corruption related to the procurement process and our ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Corruption of this sort is especially damaging because it not only hampers our ability to effectively fight our enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also frustrates our efforts to promote transparency and the rule of law in those countries.
Last fall, for example, John Allen Rivard, a former major in the Army Reserve was sentenced to 10 years in prison for conspiracy, bribery, and money laundering in connection with the fraudulent awarding and administration of U.S. government contracts in Iraq. While he was deployed to Iraq in a logistical support capacity, Rivard steered government contracts to a contractor in return for bribes equal to five percent of the value of each contract awarded. The total value of the contracts Rivard steered to the contractor was approximately $21 million and Rivard himself received approximately $220,000 – funds he attempted to launder by sending them to others for, among other things, rent on an apartment in West Hollywood, California, and a down payment on a BMW convertible.
When the Department of Justice pursues cases like these and many others on behalf of the United States, the Department bears a solemn responsibility. Like the public officials we sometimes investigate and prosecute, we too are public servants, invested with a public trust that we are sworn to uphold.
We have and we carry out a duty to ensure that the Department’s investigations of public corruption are conducted without fear or favor, and utterly without regard to the political affiliation of a particular public official. After all, a corruption investigation that is motivated by partisan politics is just corruption by another name.
Let me be clear: Politics has no role in the investigation or prosecution of political corruption or any other criminal offense, and I have seen absolutely no evidence of any such impropriety in my time at the Department, and would not tolerate it.
I consider it one of my paramount responsibilities to ensure that the Department continues to handle its public corruption investigations and prosecutions in a consistent, non-partisan, and appropriate manner throughout the nation. My personal experience with the career prosecutors and investigators who pursue these corruption cases gives me every confidence that they have done so and will continue to do so. Having once been in their shoes as an Assistant United States Attorney in charge of my office’s Official Corruption Unit, I have a special appreciation for the work they do. It is a distinct honor to serve with them as Attorney General.
Prosecutors in general have a difficult job, and prosecutors in public corruption cases often have an especially difficult one. It frequently requires hundreds, if not thousands of hours of investigative and legal work, these are not easy cases to make – and the difficulty of making them is compounded by their inherently sensitive and controversial subject matter. As a result, the agents and prosecutors who investigate and prosecute these cases are often the targets of vigorous public attacks, and it is not uncommon for those attacks to include allegations that the prosecutors themselves are corrupt or have all sorts of other improper motivations in bringing these cases.
I know of one career prosecutor, for example, who has been accused of partisan motives – by both political parties: First, when he brought a case against a prominent official of one party, and later when he brought another case against a prominent official of the other party. Such attacks come with the territory, to a certain extent. But these are serious charges that erode trust in our government, and they shouldn’t be thrown about recklessly. It’s often in the interest of someone to charge politicization whenever a prominent public figure is investigated or prosecuted. I find it notable that they make these accusations in the media, rather than before a court. The Justice Department does not – and will not – try its cases in the media. It litigates in court, based on the evidence and the law alone.
I consider it my duty to ensure that the Department’s corruption prosecutions remain free of improper political interference or motivation. Just as important, though, I also consider it my duty to ensure that the Department continues to pursue public corruption wherever we find it, regardless of such attacks.
In closing, I would like to return to where I began this evening. In the midst of San Francisco’s Graft Prosecutions, when this city’s effort to combat corruption seemed hopeless, President Theodore Roosevelt sent a lengthy letter to the civic leaders who were championing the anti-corruption cause. The letter concludes with this rousing admonition: “Do not be discouraged; do not flinch. You are in a fight for plain decency, for the plain democracy of the plain people, who believe in honesty and in fair dealing as between man and man. Do not become disheartened. Keep up the fight.”
This city and our country have come a long way since the turn of the last century. We have a system of representative democracy that, despite its flaws, remains a model to countries that aspire to be democracies and countries undergoing the pangs of being born as democracies the world over. Even now, however – especially now – we should keep up the fight against public corruption, at home and abroad. And I am here to tell you, we will.