By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 29, 2008
The FBI unveiled a task force yesterday to investigate public corruption and government fraud in Northern Virginia, saying the poor economy and an influx of federal dollars into the region could tempt officials and business owners to take bribes or divert contracting dollars for their own use.
The new Northern Virginia Public Corruption/Government Fraud Task Force brings together eight federal agencies that will target corruption and seek the public's help in reporting it.
Federal officials said they have seen no evidence that public corruption is increasing in Northern Virginia, and federal prosecutors have brought only a handful of such cases in recent years. But the FBI said putting more agents in the field and educating the public will probably result in more prosecutions.
"We're not standing here saying that the environment is systemic of corruption," Joseph Persichini Jr., head of the FBI's Washington field office, said at a news conference announcing the initiative. "It's reasonable to believe that if a high amount of dollars are coming into a region, that's opportunity. . . . We believe that every citizen is entitled to ethical public service."
The conference was held at the office of the FBI's Northern Virginia-based agents, which opened in February on a former horse farm in Prince William County.
Persichini said business leaders should be careful when they seek contracts and other government dollars. "If you are confronted with a public official who is attempting to extort you, that's the ethical decision you have to make," he said. "In the very difficult economic conditions we have today, we want to make sure that people know we are out there."
Members of the task force also include U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; the Internal Revenue Service; and inspectors general for the departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security and the U.S. Postal Service.
The U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria, which prosecutes public corruption cases in Northern Virginia, is not a member.
"We support the work of the law enforcement task force and have prosecutors working with them to assist with their efforts," James Rybicki, a spokesman for the office, said yesterday.
FBI and other federal officials urged the public to report signs of corruption to the task force, which has an e-mail address and a telephone hotline. "We cannot accomplish this without the public's help," Persichini said.
Joseph Gaudiano, special agent in charge of the Washington field office of the Homeland Security Department's office of inspector general, said he thinks that most of the Northern Virginia contractors who received $23 million in homeland security funds last year "have good processes in place to detect fraud and to control fraud."
But, he said, "with that much money moving through the areas, there's always the possibility that some of that money is diverted or misspent."
To report possible corruption call 703-686-6225, or firstname.lastname@example.org.