Do Corrupt Politicians Deserve a Second Chance?

In 2003, Joe Ganim left his fifth term as mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut in disgrace. A federal jury convicted Ganim on sixteen corruption charges, including racketeering, extortion, bribery, and mail fraud, and he served seven years in prison. Yet five years after his release, Ganim is poised to become mayor again, having won the Democratic Party primary (in overwhelmingly Democratic Bridgeport)—defying the predictions of those who thought his corruption sentence would make a political comeback all but impossible. Yet if Bridgeport were located just across the Connecticut border, in neighboring New York, Joe Ganim would not be allowed to run, because New York—along with several other states such as Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia—has a disqualification law. Such laws prevent officials who have been convicted of corruption-related crimes from running for elected office, for periods ranging from several years to life (depending on the state). We see something like this approach in many other countries as well, though different countries have adopted varied approaches to the question of whether people convicted of crimes – corruption-related or not – can run for office. In Brazil, politicians convicted of certain enumerated crimes, including corruption-related offenses, are barred for eight years pursuant to a 2009 bill (which had been championed by civil society groups). In Canada, those convicted for corrupt acts must wait seven years from the date of conviction before they can run for the House of Commons (the limit for those convicted of other crimes is five years). In France, courts have the discretion to impose, as part of criminal conviction, a period of up to ten years during which the defendant may not vote or run for public office. Other countries, like Denmark and Finland, leaves the matter up to the parliament, which can vote to disqualify someone convicted of an offense showing untrustworthiness or unfitness for public office.

Are disqualification rules of this sort a good idea? Would it be better if Connecticut had a law like New York’s, which would prevent someone like Joe Ganim from running for life? Should other democracies that suffer from widespread public corruption follow the example of countries like Brazil, which have adopted these sorts of disqualification laws? This solution is indeed a tempting one. After all, the Bridgeport race—and numerous elections elsewhere—show that voters will not always prevent those convicted of serious corruption offenses from seeking and winning public office. Yet the experience of countries that have adopted statutory disqualification signals reasons for caution. Although one must be careful about overly broad generalizations, given the extent of variation in government structure and political culture, disqualification laws raise serious risks, and may not be necessary. Continue reading