National Association of Attorneys General

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Corruption By Public Officials

This is the third of four public corruption articles to appear in the monthly NAAGazette. These articles were developed by the attorneys who participated in the June 2012 National Attorneys General Training and Research Institute (NAGTRI) International Fellows Program.

This group was assigned to focus on corruption among elected and senior appointed officials. They were asked to discuss various ways in which elected officials and government employees can be influenced to commit acts of corruption as well as possible solutions to this problem.

By Mirza Hukeljic, East Sarajevo County Prosecutor’s Office; Jovan Ilievski, Office of the Public Prosecutor of the Republic of Macedonia; Cameron Leonard, Office of the Alaska Attorney General; Jennifer MacLellan, Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service; Rakesh Patel, Office of the Maryland Attorney General; and Gulnura Toleeva, General Prosecutor’s Office of the Kyrgyz Republic

Corruption by public officials is driven by a toxic combination of greed, opportunity, and ambition. Corruption among elected and senior officials takes different forms and varies widely from country to country. Corruption involving government employees includes individuals at all levels of government and both large and small sums of money as well as other incentives. The consequences of public corruption reach all aspects of civil society — political, social, and economic. No one method can address public corruption and conduct which may seem corrupt, such as the use of a public office to influence a favorable private outcome, may be entirely legal.

Elected Officials

Most nations have laws governing the behavior of elected officials, delineating what may be criminally charged. When these officials specifically agree to pass a law or bring about a result in exchange for monetary or other benefits, there is little doubt that the behavior would be deemed corrupt. Some have raised the concern that activities such as publically-funded election campaigns promote corrupt behavior. In a democracy, individuals vote for – and donate to – those people whose policies and beliefs are in line with their own. Thus, the public funding of campaigns does not, in itself, create a corrupt environment. However, where especially large sums are involved, some might perceive that a quid pro quo is involved. Open records as to who has donated and how much has been donated are an important aspect of ensuring that campaign financing does not create a corrupt environment.

These contributions may also buy access and influence. For instance, campaign donations to a legislator on behalf of a company are generally made because the legislator is in favor of spending that would benefit the company or other businesses similarly situated. The ethical difficulties occur when the legislator who has received such donations does not strictly separate the company’s interests from the country’s interests. Such donations may be particularly problematic when the legislator is involved in funding the government agency which issues contracts that would benefit the company providing the campaign contributions.

Government Employees

Employees at every level of the executive branch of government can be involved in corrupt activities. Depending on the laws of the country or state, employee corruption is much more likely to be clearly illegal than the behavior of an elected official. There are a myriad of ways that employees are able to behave dishonestly. For instance, many government employees are issued credit cards to pay for their government-related purchases and travel. Individuals handling credit card transactions are often able to slide a personal expenditure or two — or more — into the purchases made for the agency. Internal auditors depend on employee reports to justify purchases. Rarely will these bills be scrutinized so carefully that small personal purchases will be noticed. Only when an employee becomes careless or excessive in his or her spending will this misappropriation be caught. As long as an employee is able to keep greed somewhat in check, the embezzlement will remain undetected.

Procurement is perhaps the area where the opportunity for corrupt behavior is most pronounced. Most governments have laws in place to guard against procurement fraud. But those in the procurement process often find ways to circumvent the formal procurement process.

All governments spend large amounts of money. They build things — roads, bridges, schools, hospitals. They hire people and contract workers, using employment agencies. They buy things — computers, advanced software, technology services, weaponry, and all kinds of supplies. All of these expenditures, involving billions of dollars, must go through a procurement process. That means that the government employees responsible for procurement must put out a request for bids from vendors and contractors. These vendors and contractors routinely build relationships with government employees involved in the procurement. These relationships certainly are not illegal. But using these relationships to influence winning a contract can be. And that happens.

From the government’s side, procurement involves evaluating the competing bids to determine which vendor or contractor provides the best goods or services at the best prices. In most instances, there is a number score attached to the criteria and whichever bid gets the highest score, wins. The reality is, however, that the score a procurement employee gives to particular criteria is entirely subjective. So, if the employee has been improperly influenced, he or she can score a bid in a way that is very favorable to his preferred contractor.

Honest government is fundamental to a democratic system. Therefore it is imperative that appropriate laws be in place to criminalize corrupt behavior among government officials, ensure that investigations into alleged corruption are non-partisan and fairly undertaken, and that prosecutors uphold their obligations of prosecuting corrupt officials, regardless of their status, stature, or influence.

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Tim Fox, Montana Attorney General

Tim Fox, the Montana attorney general, has worked in public service since 1990.