We are Better at Detecting Political Corruption than Punishing it

U.S. law enforcement is well set-up to battle political corruption, but not good a punishing it consistently

The comment thread of my post about the federal prison system contained a lively discussion about why federal-level law enforcement exists and what sorts of crimes it is designed to address. An example of its value comes from my home state of West Virginia, where the sole circuit judge for Mingo County has been arrested by federal agents for using his position to frame another man for various crimes. A grand jury foreman, a state trooper and another unnamed official were also part of the conspiracy.

Imagine yourself in the position of the man who is being framed for everything from stealing metal scrap to dealing drugs. Corrupt local and state officials are out to get you. What recourse do you have in that terrifying situation?

Public policy expert Phil Cook‘s answer, and it’s a good one, is that you have multiple, overlapping layers of law enforcement that help constrain corruption. The redundancy in U.S. law enforcement levels and ambits may be inefficient in other respects, but for fighting corruption it’s an asset because it’s pretty hard to buy off everyone with a dog in the fight (And of course it can go the other way than it did in Mingo County: A state or local enforcement body can sniff out corruption at the federal level).

Maybe that’s why the U.S. does better than many other countries at detecting political corruption. That said, we are not particularly good at punishing it consistently relative to other serious crimes. The same corrupt act can lead to a severe punishment in one case while getting laughed off as political business as usual in another. Contrasting the cases of former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. and Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, Lauren Victoria Burke and Field Negro argue that Black politicians are punished particularly harshly for corruption.

A systematic study of Presidents in the Americas by Vidal Romero points to another factor that ought to be irrelevant but isn’t: The State of the Economy. Romero’s research shows that if you are leading a country and want to use your position to feather your own nest, you should pray for a good GDP, which seems to put voters in a more forgiving mood regarding political corruption.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

14 thoughts on “We are Better at Detecting Political Corruption than Punishing it”

  1. Part of it is redundancy. But part of it is hierarchy, as noted in Federalist #10. Larger-scale organizations are harder to corrupt–it’s more expensive. It’s much more common for the Feds to sniff out state or local corruption, or the state to sniff out local corruption, than the reverse direction.

    Amen on racial bias. It’s worse than differential punishment. The Feds, at least until recently, had a history of bringing very weak cases against black politicians. Consider, for example, the IRS vendetta against Floyd Flake, a very respected member of the House in the 1990’s from Queens, NY. He was properly acquitted by the jury for what seemed to be nothing worse than a case of imperfect bookkeeping.

    1. It’s not just the redundancy, it’s the competition. The different levels of law enforcement notoriously do not like one another, in significant part because at any given moment they have different interests. So when one can steal a march on another, they do.

      This may be one case where something like the founders’ separation of powers idea actually works.

      1. The redundancy is what creates the competition. If they had no overlap, they could not compete. State cops don’t care about how secret service agents handle a counterfeiting operation based in the Bahamas.
        The bad feelings come about in those spheres where law enforcement overlaps and can compete (e.g., local cops feel like the FBI takes credit for successful kidnap case resolutions and blames them for unsuccessful ones).

  2. I’m not sure this proposition applies to Illinois, but it’s one place where the effects of political corruption hang thick in the air, but the only crooked pols who take a fall seem to be those who fall out of favor with Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan. And we can all have no doubt all visible corruption is rooted out, because our Attorney General is Lisa Madigan…yes, his daughter. Even a little democracy would help, but, wait, hold on, Speaker Madigan is chair of the Illinois Democratic Party — and he’s keeping that democracy thing pretty much for himself.

  3. It is not clear from the article whether circuit court judges in West Virginia are elected. It appears that the justices of the state supreme court are elected and have to run for re-election. The corrupt judge was appointed by the governor because of a vacancy created by a circuit judge’s elevation to the state supreme court. But how do circuit judges normally attain their posts?

    This could be an important data point in understanding judicial corruption. Does it occur more frequently in states which elect their judges? No doubt some reader of this blog knows the answer, or at least has some evidence concerning the question.

    1. One of my reasons for asking this question is that there is also a district court judge in Brownsville, TX who has been sentenced to six years in prison for corruption. He too was apparently elected to his seat. In his case, the FBI also caught him.

      Electing judges seems to be a questionable practice. But does the data support the hypothesis that they are more frequently corrupt than appointed judges?

      1. Judges are elected in California (“non-partisan” elections)

        But, IMHO, there is relatively little judicial corruption in California. Perhaps a legacy of the progressives? Of course, the California system is warped away from elections by a system which allows the governor to appoint a judge (no election) when the seat becomes vacant during the twelve year term–as it almost always does, retirements and resignations being timed to give the governor the power to appoint. Once a judge is appointed there is little chance of losing a retention election. There is also a commission which, before a judge is appointed, contacts lawyers who have had cases with the potential judge and ask for anything the governor ought to know before making the appointment.

        Of course, Illinois, also elects judges, in party slate elections, and is a screaming example of judicial corruption. Hint: if you ever have to appear in Cook County courtroom be sure to hire your own court reporter–because the State does not provide them and one of the few constraints on the judges is have a reporter take down what happens. The judges are notably better behaved when recorded.

        Interestingly, California just got rid of official court reporters, too. As part of Gov. Brown’s reforms.

  4. The proposition that minority politician who sin are treated more harshly at sentencing than white politicians may have some “there” there, but McConnell is a bad example. The full scope of his bad acts may not yet be known, as it is unfolding in real time, so it’s premature to compare his situation to former Rep. Jackson’s. in addition, it is a truism that building winning criminal cases takes time, so it is surely premature (and frankly quite silly) to suggest that Gov. McConnell has escaped punishment.

  5. Y’know, I’ve never been a fan of the US mix of elected positions, political appointees, and career civil servants, but perhaps that also contributes to a relatively corruption-proof government. In order for corruption to occur, you have to have a stable network of officials/aides/staff/etc. cooperating with each other over the duration of the scam, and all keeping their mouths shut afterwards. That’s easy to do if your whole office, from the supervisor to the auditor to the secretary, is appointed by the same official for the same four-year term … equally so if the whole office is on ordinary payroll, and you don’t expect a new face to come near you for a decade at a time.

    It’s harder to do if the supervisor is beholden to the elected mayor, the auditor is has to run for reelection in two years, and the front-office secretary has been in the HR pool for 20 years and three administrations.

    I wonder if there’s any research on this? There are certainly state- and county-level differences in which positions are elected, which such elections are contested, how deep the appointees go, etc.

    1. Anecdotally, this fits British and French experience. The public life of both (highly centralised) countries is generally thought of as pretty honest. But when things go rotten, as for many years in the Metropolitan Police, and the Taiwan frigate scandal in France, it´s extremely hard to root out.

    1. Corruption used to be pretty simple—or at least harder to track. One man ran one political machine in each city, which served as the nexus of business, politics and money. But computers and technology have democratized the possibilities for graft, as well as the tools to catch the bad guys.

      The Most Corrupt States: As money pours into the Gulf, The Daily Beast crunches the numbers, from public embezzlement to private sector fraud, for all 50 states to rank which play dirty—and which have cleaned up their act.

      50 states and no winners

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