The Costs of Public Corruption – And The Need for the Public to Fight Back
by Patrick Fitzgerald
Former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois
Vigorous prosecution of public corruption has always been vital to our country. Public corruption takes a heavy toll on our communities. Corruption gives unfair advantages to those willing to break the law: public officials, their relatives and friends, and those who willingly pay bribes to gain public contracts and other government actions. But there are many victims: both those who are shaken down for bribes and kickbacks, and the members of the general public, who pay for corruption through inflated costs and loss of faith in government.With tightening budgets throughout all levels of government, vigorous enforcement is even more important than ever.
The residents of the Northern District of Illinois in particular have suffered many consequences as a result of generations of corrupt state and local government officials. Illinois roads were made more dangerous when state employees issued drivers licenses to truck drivers in exchange for bribes, intended to finance campaign contributions to former Gov. George Ryan’s political warchest. Some of the unqualified truck drivers given licenses as a result of that corrupt scheme caused serious accidents, the most horrific resulting in the death of six children whose family van exploded when it ran over a piece of equipment that fell off a truck driven by a bribe-paying driver.
There are also financial consequences to corruption. Millions of taxpayer dollars are paid out on contracts and other government benefits steered by public officials to insiders who, in turn, shower financial benefits on those public officials and their associates. Recently, Chicago taxpayers saw hundreds of thousands of city dollars funneled to sham minority-owned trucking companies under a program that served to enrich city workers with kickbacks.
Corruption can also change the face of a community. Over and over, for several decades, some Chicago aldermen have given away public benefits, like zoning rights and city-owned land, to real estate developers who, in turn, have lined the aldermen’s pockets and campaign purses.
Undoubtedly the most harmful consequence of endemic public corruption in a community is the apathy that it engenders – the culture of acceptance. Over many years of seeing corruption in almost every facet of government, many residents of a community begin to simply accept corruption as the immutable status quo. They come to assume government is broken and ineffective and destined to function corruptly. The consequences of this culture of acceptance in a community are many. Some residents simply disengage from the political process and no longer trust their government to function well or in their interest. Other residents may come to believe they must engage in corruption in order to gain government benefits themselves. Still others will begin to look the other way when they witness corrupt transactions. And honest folks are discouraged from entering politics or suffer from the skepticism engendered by others’ misdeeds.
The culture of acceptance makes it very difficult to detect, investigate and prosecute corruption. Although there are a variety of federal statutes that we use to prosecute corruption, including fraud, bribery and extortion statutes, as well as RICO, prosecutions cannot be successful without truthful witnesses and willing cooperators. Because voluntary assistance from the public in corruption cases is often hard to come by, we use many investigative techniques that assist us in gathering evidence and requiring cooperation, such as the use of grand jury subpoenas, grants of immunity, consensual recordings, and wiretaps. Using a wide range of these tools to vigorously investigate corruption can lead to convictions of corrupt officials once thought to be above the law, which, more effectively than anything else, demonstrates that the public need not accept corruption. Successful prosecutions that show that no one is beyond the reach of corruption statutes serve to encourage, empower and mobilize members of the public to work to change the culture of acceptance. We are grateful in the Northern District of Illinois that juries time and time again have rejected the argument that corruption is acceptable because it is the “Chicago way.”
In addition to the need for effective prosecutions, federal prosecutors must engage in community outreach to ensure that all residents of a community know that they can have a voice in stopping corruption and that they need not accept corruption in any degree—at any level of government. In the Northern District of Illinois, we try to send the message as often as we can that community involvement is critical in rooting out corruption. We regularly communicate that residents must take an active role in their government so that it properly functions for them. We also emphasize that the vigorous efforts of law enforcement should not be used as a rationale for the community to stay silent. The public’s refusal to accept corruption is the first line of defense in the fight against it.
While corruption will never be eliminated from our communities, vigorous investigation and prosecution of corrupt officials can serve to reduce its harmful effects and, most importantly, greatly diminish the culture of acceptance.