To bribe a public official, how much money does it really take?


In a recent front-page article, The Chronicle noted the growing number of officials involved in the town hall scandal and questioned why, despite high salaries, they seem to have sold the town for so little. As a former federal corruption prosecutor in Washington, DC and Chicago (one of the long-standing citadels of urban corruption), I offer some explanations and predictions. In doing so, I do not intend to comment on the guilt or innocence of any person named in the current investigation; that they are in fact corrupt should not be assumed from a newspaper article.

My experience has been that it is typical, rather than unusual, for corrupt officials to accept bribes in an amount that The Chronicle has called “ridiculous prices.” For example, the second-highest-ranking judge in Cook County, Illinois (which includes Chicago and its inner suburbs, with a population of around 5 million) was convicted of settling a case civilian, lost his job and was sentenced to 37 months in prison, all for a bribe of only five or six thousand dollars. Another judge set the case for the murder of a mafia hitman – acquitting him on all charges – for $ 10,000.

Why so little?

Of course, the answer is sometimes unknowable and probably varies from case to case. In the cases that I have seen, the answer sometimes seemed to be that they made up the volume. Public corruption is not an easy crime to detect – unlike, for example, a bank robbery in which the victim deals directly with the perpetrator, victims of public corruption often have no idea that the crime has occurred. already occurred. Catching corruption therefore takes diligence, help and luck, and investigations do not necessarily catch everything, even from officials who are caught.

Many corruption cases that I have pursued have included an elaborate balance sheet by the Internal Revenue Service, which has counted over a long period of time all sources of income declared by the official or other available cash, and compared it to expenditure of the official during the same period. Often the expenses far exceeded the income, and the delta was far greater than the amount of bribes we could prove. While this toll sometimes generated creative explanations from the official as to where the extra money was coming from, the most plausible inference was usually that the official had accepted further bribes.

Other cases appeared to be as much about status and influence as it was about the amount of the bribe paid. Bribe payers can be individuals of considerable wealth and influence. Sometimes the bribe payers had the option of furthering the official’s quest for a higher post, or for a post after leaving office, and the bribe could be more of a cementing token payment. the link.

San Francisco may have the opportunity to test these hypotheses in the future. In my experience, catching a little corruption helps catch more corruption. Indeed, the best sources of information on corruption are insiders who are not fans of their colleagues or supervisors who may receive bribes. But until prosecutors convict some officials of corruption, insiders tend to hold back, fearing that corrupt officials and their compatriots are powerful enough to escape punishment – and vindictive enough to punish anyone who tries to expose them. When insiders see prosecutors convicting local public officials, more are willing to come forward.

If that turns out to be the case, we can all sit back, watch, and learn why there is so little consideration for the quo.

Michael Shepard is a former head of the Public Integrity Section of the Criminal Division of the US Department of Justice as well as an Acting US Attorney in Chicago. He is currently a partner at King & Spalding in San Francisco, and the views expressed are his own.


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