In recent posts I described how developing nations bedeviled by endemic corruption have “borrowed” integrity by contracting out the inspection of imports, the management of public finances, and even the investigation of grand corruption cases to private firms or international agencies. But it is not just poorer countries where corruption is so ingrained that government must turn to outsiders for help. The leaders of Mississippi, New York, Louisiana, the City of Chicago, and other state, county, and municipal governments have done so as well. History and politics have created conditions in these jurisdictions where local officials have been unable to effectively control bribery, nepotism, bid rigging, and other corruption crimes. Either the police won’t investigate or the prosecutors won’t charge or the courts won’t convict.
Beginning in the nineteen seventies, governors, mayors, and other local officials have either sought, or acquiesced in, help from the federal government. Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation examine allegations of corruption by state and local public servants, the United States Attorney for the region, a Presidential appointee, prosecutes the cases developed by the FBI, and they are heard in a federal district court presided over by a judge named by a President. Although the U.S. Attorney and the judge may have ties to the area where the case has arisen, neither they nor the FBI agents, nor the assistant prosecutors that actually handle the cases, are beholden to local interests. Not only are they free to pursue cases whatever the local political implications, they often win kudos from their superiors in Washington for nailing a corrupt local official.
Federalizing the investigation and prosecution of state and local corruption has not been without its critics, however, though the criticism has died away for a quintessential American reason.
The reason: federalization has worked. As a Mississippi newspaper quoted by historian Ronald Kessler in his 1993 history of the FBI said when endorsing federal corruption prosecutions, “if it weren’t for the federal law agencies, Mississippi’s future would to some extent be in the hands of a pack of rascals.” And a large number of rascals among state and local public servants there seems to be. The latest Justice Department figures show that some 6,200 governors, mayors, judges, state legislators, city council members, and career public servants have either been convicted or pled guilty to one or more corruption crimes over the 1994 to 2013 period with 119 state and 334 local officials convicted or pleading in 2013 alone, the latest year for which data is available. The “bigger fish” include governors of 13 states – Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois (four different ones, the U.S. record), Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Rhode Island, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia; and the leaders of state senates or houses of representatives from 11 states – California, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Tennessee. (This data along with a list of “lesser” officials nabbed by the federal government – state comptrollers, tax agency heads, mayors, state legislators, judges, and the like – is drawn from a Wikipedia entry that its author notes is incomplete.)
Although there had always been a few prosecutions of state and local officials by the federal government, principally for stealing money from federal programs, the drive to root corruption out of state and local governments began in earnest in the mid-nineteen seventies. Law enforcement officials, awakened by the Watergate Scandal to how corruption can threaten the very foundations of democratic government, made the investigation and prosecution of state and local officials for corruption a priority. The success of “Abscam,” an FBI undercover operation in the late nineteen seventies that resulted in the convictions of six members of the United States House of Representatives, one United States Senator, one member of the New Jersey State Senate, members of the Philadelphia City Council, the Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, an inspector for the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the 2013 movie American Hustle gave the drive impetus. It showed not only the value of undercover operations designed to lure corrupt officials into incriminating themselves in corrupt acts but that the public, elected leaders, and the judiciary were willing to tolerate the use of such tactics in the name of cleansing the body politic of corruption, even if it meant faking criminal cases to catch corrupt judges.
The stepped up federal effort has not been without its critics. One complaint derives from the idea of federalism found, or at least to the critics found, in the U.S. Constitution. These critics argue that the under the Constitutional allocation of powers between the federal and state governments, the federal government exceeds its limited and defined powers when it prosecutes local crimes — no matter how heinous. A second objection is more pragmatic. By taking over the prosecution of local corruption crime, the federal government retards the development of state and local investigation and prosecution. Had the federal government not usurped the role of state and local government, this claim runs, pressure from the citizenry would have led them to develop the capacity and will to pursue local forms of corruption. While both objections were once fiercely advanced in American law journals, both critiques have waned in recent years as the string of convictions has continued unabated.
A more subtle critique emerges from recent research by James Alt and David Dreyer-Lassen. They find that the more resources the federal government devotes to prosecuting corruption by state and local officials, the more convictions it secures. At first this may seem unsurprising. After all, shouldn’t more effort to investigate and prosecute corruption crime produce more convictions? But if more resources were allocated to state and local corruption, at some point one would expect a proportional decline in the number of prosecutions as state and local official tempted to take a bribe or engage in other corrupt acts declined to do so because they feared punishment. But that deterrent effect apparently has yet to register; there are still not enough prosecutions that corrupt or would-be corrupt officials fear getting caught enough to stop their illegal activities. What the Alt and Dreyer-Lassen findings show is that if the federal government is serious about eradicating state and local corruption, it needs to devote more effort to the cause.