FBI Focus Yields Spike in Corruption Cases
Thursday, December 7, 2006
Congress isn't the only place where public corruption is on the rise.
More than 1,000 federal, state and local government employees across the country have been convicted in government corruption cases over the past two years, including hundreds of crooked police officers and others who have dipped into the taxpayers' till, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said yesterday.
The numbers underscore the extent to which public corruption has become a primary, if little-noticed, focus of FBI criminal investigators, taking its place alongside preventing terrorism as one the bureau's fundamental missions.
All told, public-corruption investigations have surged by 30 percent in the past four years, to more than 2,000, officials said. The FBI now dedicates more than 600 agents and 15 percent of its criminal investigative resources to government graft.
"Public corruption is the top criminal priority for the FBI," Mueller told the Senate Judiciary Committee, adding later: "If we do not investigate these cases, they perhaps will not be investigated."
The highest-profile cases have been in Congress, including the probe into the web of corruption surrounding former lobbyist Jack Abramoff that led to guilty pleas from former congressman Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) and some Capitol Hill aides, and a separate investigation that led to a guilty plea from former congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.). The FBI also prompted a showdown with House leaders earlier this year after it searched the Capitol Hill office of Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) in connection with a probe of financial deals he was involved in.
But most of the FBI's corruption inquiries focus on state legislatures, city halls and police stations, Mueller said. The list of convictions over the past two years includes 158 state officials, 360 local officials and 365 police officers, Mueller said. One hundred seventy-seven of the convictions involved federal officials.
Among the biggest local cases were Operation Tennessee Waltz, in which 10 state officials and legislators were accused of taking payoffs in a sting operation; Operation Wrinkled Robe, a bribery investigation that led to arrests of two state judges in Louisiana; and an ongoing inquiry in Alaska that is focusing on whether state legislators accepted payments from an oil-field-services company.
Perhaps the biggest case is Operation Lively Green in Arizona, which Mueller said has targeted 99 suspects so far as part of a drug-related probe along the U.S.-Mexican border. Prison guards, service members and law-enforcement officers have been convicted of taking bribes to help move cocaine across the border.
Law-enforcement experts said it is impossible to say whether the increase in corruption cases reflects a rise in criminality among public officials or the greater emphasis at the FBI on such prosecutions.
The number of FBI agents assigned to corruption cases has ballooned from 451 in 2001 to 618 in 2006, officials said, and Mueller has made corruption the top priority for the bureau's criminal investigative division.
James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University in Boston, said that "nobody really knows if the extent of corruption is higher than previous decades. All we know is that the FBI is finding more because it's focusing on these cases."
Franklin E. Zimring, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley who has studied prosecution of public-corruption cases, said such cases are extremely difficult to pursue because they are time-consuming and well-hidden.
"Unless you have ex-wives or frustrated business partners, nobody's going to phone you and say, 'My gosh, this is happening.' You have to go out and look for it," Zimring said. "It's a lot like narcotics and prostitution in two respects: It's very labor-intensive for law enforcement, and the amount of it you find is very closely related to the amount of it that you look for."
Mueller also disclosed that the bureau is investigating leaks to the media surrounding one corruption probe, an FBI investigation of Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), who lost his seat Nov. 7. Mueller indicated that the FBI and the Justice Department have opened "a series" of leak investigations into the Weldon case and others.
The FBI's probe of alleged influence peddling was reported Oct. 13 by McClatchy Newspapers, which cited an unidentified law-enforcement source.
The FBI's shift toward public-corruption cases has come at the same time that it has dramatically decreased its role in investigating violent gangs and crime. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told Mueller that the FBI needs to focus more resources on violent crime amid evidence that national crime rates are on the rise.
"I think you've got a real need for a mission reevaluation," she said.
Mueller said that, although he hopes to add resources to investigating violent crime, "I think our priorities are appropriately aligned."