Good morning. Thank you, Attorney General Carter, for that introduction.
I commend you and the leadership of the National Association of Attorneys General for organizing this "Presidential Initiative on Public Corruption," and I am very pleased to be here with you to address this critical issue.
Steve Carter's "President's Message" in April set out the challenge forcefully and plainly. He wrote:
"The days of wine and roses are over–literally. Whether you're a government official, a publicly traded company executive or the leader of a not for profit organization the writing on the wall is crystal clear--the public is demanding and deserving of accountability."
Steve, I could not agree with you more, and I salute your strong and well-timed leadership.
I have been looking forward to this conference. This is an excellent opportunity for state and federal law enforcement leaders to reaffirm our commitment to combat corruption in every aspect of government service.
Why is this commitment so important? Because public corruption, left unchecked, threatens the very form of our system of government. And, more importantly, it threatens the full nature of our cherished liberty.
And that is my message this morning. Public corruption is a threat to the American form of government and the blessings of liberty that flow from it. Therefore, detecting, punishing and deterring public corruption must be a top priority of all law enforcement.
Now that is a rather strong statement, so please let me explain.
We are a people governed by laws, and no one is above the law. But laws are not self-executing; they must be enforced and administered by human beings. To promote order and justice, those charged with enforcing and administering the law must act with integrity.
In a recent speech marking his first year at the Department of Justice, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales put it this way, "In America, our unique commitment to the rule of law allows ordinary citizens to rely on and expect…honesty of government officials. . . ."
The Framers of the United States Constitution well understood this expectation of integrity in government. During the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin, who was born 300 years ago this year, observed that
Much of the strength and efficiency of any Government in procuring and securing happiness to the people, depends . . . on the general opinion of the goodness of the Government, as well as the wisdom and integrity of its Governors.
This is a great insight. Franklin made that statement at a point in history where Americans had just won their liberty after a long and bloody war. And now these wise founding fathers were contemplating the best form of government for preserving their victory and setting them on a course toward prosperity.
I wonder what Mr. Franklin would say today if the headlines in his Pennsylvania Gazette contained the stories so familiar to us all.
A popular mayor of a major U.S. city supplements – actually replaces – his income with kickbacks and bribes, drawing senior city officials and contractors into a web of corruption. In spite of his talent and intelligence, and great potential as a leader of urban renewal, serving his community was apparently not enough.
A member of Congress and American hero sells access to government contractors – in million dollar increments – from his seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Having nearly laid down his life for his country in battle, he betrays his sacred oath to "bear true faith and allegiance to the [Constitution]."
A state Secretary of State, and later Governor, receives illegal cash payments and gifts, vacations and personal services while at the same time benefiting the donors with official acts. Even commercial driver's licenses were for sale in the state. One truck driver, who spoke limited English, paid a bribe for such a license. This same driver later caused a fiery accident when a piece of his truck's undercarriage broke loose and punctured the gas tank of a family's van, killing six children. The reason – the driver with the illegal license had been unable to understand warnings from other truckers about the unsafe condition. The consequences of public corruption are very real, but rarely are they so vivid and tragic.
During my tenure as U.S. Attorney in Virginia, I saw this disturbing pattern. The Eastern District of Virginia is home to the Pentagon and a great number of national security assets. Literally hundreds of thousands of civilian and military employees work in that region and serve the public with great integrity. But there are always those for whom the honor of serving their country and having a well-paid and meaningful job is not enough.
For example, my office prosecuted Darlene Druyun, once a top Air Force acquisition official, who obtained jobs with Boeing for her daughter, her daughter's fiancé, and herself while negotiating major contracts with Boeing. Druyun admitted steering billions of dollars in contracts to Boeing. In her guilty plea, she admitted that she agreed on behalf of the government to pay more for a contract than she believed was appropriate. She referred to it as a "parting gift."
It is hard to know precisely how much Druyun's self-dealing cost the government, but consider this: every one million dollars wrongfully spent represents the average amount of taxes paid by nearly 200 American families.
My office also won a conviction against two Department of Defense officials for extortion, money laundering, and accepting gifts of cash and sexual favors from prostitutes paid for by companies seeking business with the government. They exploited the special trust placed in them for private gain. What made the case especially offensive was that the defendants headed up the Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization for DOD in the 1990s. In other words, we prosecuted government officials responsible for helping minority and disadvantaged businesses who instead abused their positions to shake them down. Their conduct was the ultimate insult to those they were duty bound to serve.
In tiny Gloucester, Virginia, a colonial town just across the York River from the final battle of the American Revolution, lived a NASA employee named Robert Smoot. Smoot was a high ranking civil servant, making twice the average family income in that area. His job was to review and improve contracts for work done at NASA's Langley Research Center in nearby Hampton, Virginia. Using his position of authority he approved a $40,000 contract to a company he secretly owned. For Smoot, the comfortable living he made serving his country was apparently not enough. And I mention this relatively small case as a reminder that corruption comes in all forms and sizes.
It is fitting that we meet this morning in the Land of Lincoln. Illinois' favorite son, Abraham Lincoln – Honest Abe, once said: "No man is good enough to govern another without his consent." Integrity in public life is necessary to secure the consent of the governed; integrity is the foundation of the democracy that the Framers created.
We all can stand to be reminded of why integrity is important in public life and how to practice it.
When public servants, from the entry-level clerk to the most senior official, fail to carry out their duties with integrity, the public treasury is wasted, civil liberties are threatened, and, perhaps most profoundly, public trust is eroded – the very trust that gives government its legitimacy.
I believe the opposite is likewise true – the blessings of liberty flourish where there is integrity in government. Not because government is the fount of all good, but because it promotes a society where disputes are resolved fairly, where those who work hard can enjoy the fruits of their labor, and where the rights of both the great and small are vindicated. It also provides a framework for the personal and commercial transactions that are essential for opportunity and prosperity.
America is a land of big dreams, because quite often big dreams come true. So, for example, a young entrepreneur can dream of owning a business with realistic expectations that the dream will not die at the hands of corrupt government officials who demand bribes, payoffs and steal the entrepreneur's profits. In many other places in the world, such hopeful expectations do not exist.
But good government does still more – it commends and promotes self-governance among our fellow citizens. Inscribed on the Department of Justice building, at the corner of 10th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, is the saying:
JUSTICE IN THE LIFE AND CONDUCT OF THE STATE IS POSSIBLE ONLY AS FIRST IT RESIDES IN THE HEARTS AND SOULS OF THE CITIZENS
Integrity is essential if we are to be a self-governing people. Alexis de Tocqueville called it, "self-interest rightly understood." From an early age, we learn what is right and what is wrong from our family, faith-community and school. Later, we learn more from our social and work relationships. But, throughout our lives, we also learn from leaders in government what is right and what is wrong. When government is perceived as corrupt and unjust, citizens may be tempted to believe that self-dealing is the only way to get ahead. When government is perceived as clean and evenhanded, we and our fellow citizens become increasingly convinced that good conduct and an honest day's work are the best ways to make a difference in our own lives and the lives of others.
To the extent a good example results in more people governing their own behavior, the hand of government can and should become lighter. This is, in part, how integrity in government and, in turn, integrity in our everyday lives causes the blessings of liberty to flourish.
The health of our democracy ultimately turns on the integrity of its citizens. For those of us in public service, however, the example we set by our conduct – good or bad – has a special impact. As the Attorney General shared with you in March, "[I]t only takes one or two corrupt officials to damage the public trust in hundreds of thousands of hard working public servants."
The point is this: integrity is necessary in public life because we are stewards of something bigger than ourselves. In particular, many of us in this room are charged with the administration of justice. What an awesome responsibility to be the caretakers of a system that resolves disputes between individuals, determines innocence and guilt, and metes out punishment. Without integrity, there is great potential for injustice in what we do or fail to do.
This is the critical issue of our day. It is connected to who and what we are as a country. It affects how we are perceived by others and how we perceive ourselves.
Any good business with a solid reputation has to work hard to maintain that reputation and the goodwill of its customers. One defective product or one lawsuit alleging discrimination can tarnish the brand. People will begin to associate the company with negative things, destroying years of hard work by dedicated employees. The same is true of our 230-year experiment in democracy. We have to work hard to prevent our form of government from being held in contempt. One corrupt official can undo the work of hundreds who serve with integrity.
Those of us in law enforcement must understand how important this is. In essence, we must ensure that corruption never takes hold. The alternative is unacceptable.
Without integrity and the rule of law, we would be like so many suffering nations of the world where helpless people do not think big thoughts or dream big dreams or even believe that hard work will get them ahead. Instead they have learned that the only way to get ahead is to exploit the weak, to take advantage of others.
In America, on the other hand, hard work – the pursuit of happiness – is the way to get ahead, and this principle is rooted not only in our values but also in our laws. We believe that people are entitled to enjoy the fruits of their labors. This is central to our way of life. This is hard-wired into us as Americans. We feel anger when hard work does not pay off or when merit is not the basis for advancement.
Over the years, I have enjoyed the privilege of working with thousands of people who have dedicated their careers and their lives to public service. Most serve with great vigor and would not be tempted to violate the oath they took upon entering public service. More frequently than not, they have sacrificed financially for the privilege of serving the public.
Many of you in this room represent that commitment to public service. By personally adhering to the highest standards of conduct and promoting integrity in your offices, you honor this high calling.
Furthermore, by detecting and prosecuting those in government who betray the public trust, you make our nation stronger.
So today I challenge us all to rededicate ourselves to serving the public with integrity and to ensuring that others do so as well. Together, we can shore up the foundations of our republic and restore, in the words of Ben Franklin, "the general opinion of the goodness of the Government." This is the only means of achieving the principal purpose of government: "to secure happiness to the people." With God's grace, may this be our legacy to posterity.