There has been a vigorous debate on the blog about the definition of corruption with distinguished academics and practitioners weighing in on what they argue constitutes corrupt behavior by a public official.
Readers will recall that in early November I asked what they thought. I described six cases where a court, ethics agency, or public opinion had decided whether certain conduct was corrupt, and without revealing how the authority ruled, readers were invited to say what they thought. A number did, often with thoughtful explanations supporting their view.
Below is how their answers compare with the authority who made the decision. As the tabulated replies show, readers are far tougher when it comes to ruling conduct corrupt than courts or even the most important court of all, the court of public opinion. The rationale behind the authority’s decision follows. Comments invited.
|1. Vanuatu majority government provides MPs positions in return for vote against no confidence measure. Court ruling: NOT CORRUPT||3||4|
|2. U.S. Senate seat in return for appointment to cabinet. Court ruling: NOT CORRUPT||5||2|
|3. Oakland Mayor oversees redevelopment funds to neighborhoods that could include his own. Court ruling: NOT CORRUPT (technicality)||1||3|
|4. Independent New South Wales MP resigns seat in return for job in public service. Public Opinion: CORRUPT||5||1|
|5. Appointee in newly elected Kentucky government asks for share of fixed commission government pays for insurance. Court ruling: NOT CORRUPT||5||0|
|6. Canadian PM lobbies national development bank to loan to hotel abutting golf course he has part interest in. Ethics counsellor: NOT CORRUPT||4||0|
|Case 1. Vanuatu majority government provides MPs positions in return for vote against no confidence measure|
|Not Corrupt. Vanuatu’s highest court ruled that the practice offering MPs a position in return for opposing a no confidence motion, termed reshuffling, was not corrupt but a form of “political maneuvering” which it said is “a feature of parliamentary democracy in Vanuatu” as well as in other democracies. The court alluded to the importance of reshuffling in maintaining government stability. Public Prosecutor v. Tabimasmas  VUCA 14; Criminal Appeal Case 3532 of 2020 (19 February 2021).|
|Case 2. U.S. Senate seat in return for appointment to cabinet.|
|Not Corrupt. A U.S. appellate court ruled that the proposed “trade one public act for another” was different from a situation where an official offers to perform a public act in return for a bribe. It is instead a common form of “logrolling,” and the “usual course of business” in politics includes logrolling. United States v. Blagojevich, 794 F.3d 729 (7th Cir. 2015).|
|Case 3. Oakland Mayor oversees redevelopment funds to neighborhoods that could include his own.|
|Not Corrupt. The legal decision went off on whether under California law the mayor was exempt from a conflict of interest law that would bar his involvement in the allocation of redevelopment funds because there was “no alternative source of decision consistent with the purposes and terms of the statute authorizing the decision.” The California Court of Appeals held there was no alternative and overruled the state ethics agency opinion to the contrary. Brown v. Fair Political Practices Commission, 100 Cal.Rptr.2d 606, 84 Cal.App.4th 137 (2000). Click here for Stanford Political Scientist Bruce Cain’s explanation of why in a representative democracy the mayor’s involvement should not be considered corrupt.|
|Case 4. Independent New South Wales MP resigns seat in return for job in public service|
|Mixed decision. The New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption determined that in engineering the resignation, Prime Minister Greiner would be seen “by a notional jury as conducting himself contrary to known and recognized standards of honesty and integrity,” and were he a civil servant, he would be required to resign. The Court of Appeals held that while the conduct constituted a breach of trust, it was not such as to require resignation. Greiner v Independent Commission Against Corruption, (1992) 28 NSWLR 125. Greiner fared much worse in the court of public opinion, forced by his colleagues to resign his seat in the face of a public outcry. British historian and political philosopher Mark Philp uses the case to illustrate “the extent to which the investigation, prevention, and prosecution of corruption is profoundly influenced not simply by how corruption is defined but, more deeply, by how we are to understand the character of politics.” Mark Philp, “Defining Political Corruption,” Political Studies vol. XLV, 1997.|
|Case 5. Appointee in newly elected Kentucky government asks for share of fixed commission government pays for insurance.|
|Not Corrupt. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the appointee’s conviction under the federal mail fraud statute. The prosecution’s theory was defendant’s participation in what the Court called “a self-dealing patronage scheme” defrauded Kentucky citizens of their right to have the state government’s affairs conducted honestly. Although decided on technical grounds, that as written the mail fraud law reached only fraudulent conduct involving property, not the intangible right to good government, the Court stressed that because insurance commissions are fixed by law, neither the state nor its citizens were out any money because the agent had to share his commission. Nor did the sharing affect the quality or extent of coverage the state enjoyed. McNally v. United States, 483 U.S. 350 (1987).|
|Case 6. Canadian PM lobbies national development bank to loan to hotel abutting golf course he has part interest in.|
|Not Corrupt. Federal Ethics Counsellor Howard Wilson ruled then Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s lobbing had violated no ethical restriction. The loan was for an important business in his riding (electoral district) that would benefit his constituents. The Shawinigate affair as it has been dubbed did raise a public ruckus as Wilson was a Chretien appointee and questions about how accurately Chretien reported his interest in the golf course and when he sold it remained murky at best. Chretien Fights Accusations of Cover Up|