In the United States, the federal government’s Department of Justice (DOJ) plays a huge role in the prosecution of state-level public corruption: Over the past five years, federal prosecutors have obtained the convictions of approximately 1,700 corrupt state and local officials for corruption-related offenses. Examples range from prominent and powerful figures like Sheldon Silver, the former Speaker of the New York State Assembly, to low-level functionaries like Eloy Infante and Elpidio Yanez, Jr., two former members of the School Board of Donna, Texas.
The federal government’s primacy in prosecuting state and local corruption is no accident. One of the stories of American law enforcement in the 20th century, especially though not exclusively in the anticorruption context, is the expanding role of the federal government, an expansion that was in part a reaction to the perceived deficiencies of state law enforcement. Most states in the U.S. elect both prosecutors and judges, and concerns that these elected officials were under-resourced, incompetent, partisan, or captured by local influence-peddlers contributed to the rise of federal criminal law enforcement. The federal government’s role in prosecuting state and local corruption blossomed in the 1970s, with regional U.S. Attorney’s offices taking the lead, supported by a new DOJ Public Integrity Section in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Attorney’s offices were considered more independent and less vulnerable to capture than local law enforcement, were generally better resourced than their state and local counterparts, and were able to focus those resources on picked cases.
This system has worked well and achieved considerable success. Many argue—with justification—that the federal government’s central role in prosecuting state and local corruption was instrumental in breaking the stranglehold of corrupt political machines at the subnational level. But today, it’s important for state prosecutors to do more to supplement, and in some cases perhaps supplant, federal anticorruption prosecutions. If the story of the 20th century was a distrust of states to police their own politicians, the early 21st century story may be that we can no longer completely trust the feds to do it either. There are three main reasons why, going forward, we may need to rely increasingly on the states:
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