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Political Corruption 101: Examples of Graft

3 min read
U.S. Department of Energy - Science - 389 005 009 (9786312446) (cropped 2)
Good Party Politics Team · Dec 1, 2023

“This is a government of the people, by the people and for the people no longer. It is a government by the corporations, of the corporations and for the corporations.” 

That quote is from Rutherford B. Hayes, our 19th president. It’s an excerpt of a diary entry written in 1886, at the apex of America’s “Gilded Age,” but it could have been written yesterday. 

In American politics, the term "graft" often emerges as a dark undercurrent that runs through all levels of our government and threatens the integrity of democratic institutions. It’s a form of theft that enriches the individuals who are engaged in it, but it comes at the expense of the public good. 

Read on as we delve into the concept of graft, exploring its implications in the political process and shedding light on both hypothetical and real-world examples. We'll also discuss the potential role of independent candidates in curbing political corruption and greed.

What Is Graft?

Graft, in its simplest form, refers to the exploitation of one's official position or influence for personal gain, especially financial. It’s a form of political corruption that can manifest in various ways that range from bribery to embezzlement

For example, an official could divert funds from a public works project to a private entity, maybe one owned by a friend or relative, or perhaps grant a contract in exchange for a bribe or kickback. This agreement would result in enriching both parties, and that could come at the expense of the project. 

The essence of graft lies in the betrayal of public trust and the subversion of established rules for personal enrichment. Although it is often tied to other white collar crimes like embezzlement and influence peddling, graft means, by definition, to corruptly use one’s power or influence for personal gain.

The Impact of Graft on the Political Process

Graft has a profoundly corrosive effect on the political system. It undermines democracy by prioritizing private gain over public interest, erodes public trust in government institutions, and diverts resources from critical public services to the pockets of corrupt officials. 

This type of systemic rot can stifle economic growth, exacerbate social inequalities, and create a climate of cynicism and disenchantment among voters. 

In order to illustrate how graft plays out in real-world politics at all levels of government, we’ll take a look at some examples:

Hypothetical Examples of Graft in Politics

Graft can occur in small ways or can be conducted on a large scale via lucrative government contracts. It happens in state and local offices around the country as well as at the federal level. 

Here are some examples of various ways this form of corruption manifests:

  • Kickbacks in Public Contracts: Imagine a situation where a high-ranking official awards a lucrative government contract to a company in return for a percentage of the contract’s value. 

  • Influence Peddling: Picture a legislator or Supreme Court Justice who uses their influence to push through legislation that disproportionately benefits a corporation or individual, who, in turn, provides them with luxury vacations.

  • Misuse of Public Funds: Consider a scenario where a mayor diverts city funds intended for public projects into personal offshore accounts.

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Real-World Examples of Graft in American Politics

There are so many examples of graft throughout the political history of the United States that listing them all would fill a book. In fact, many have been written on this topic. 

Instead, we’ll just cover one blatant example that stands out from each of the historical eras in America that were known for their excesses. 

#1: Tammany Hall (1789 - 1966)

Tammany Hall was not so much a corrupt office or individual as it was an entire system within a system. This organization was formed in opposition to the Federalist Party shortly after the U.S. became a free, independent nation. 

Although Tammany Hall accomplished a lot of good for marginalized communities in New York City during the nearly two centuries that it was relevant, this stand-in for the Executive Committee of the Democratic Party in local politics elevated the power and influence of notorious “bosses” like William M. Tweed, whose names and deeds would become legendary. For example, Tammany-backed judges could be pressured to rule in favor of certain locals who would then reward them with support at the ballot box in the next election. 

Its power was diluted by equally notorious anti-Tammany mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, with a little help from President Franklin Roosevelt, and Tammany Hall was finally rendered irrelevant and inactive during the 1960s.

#2: The Teapot Dome Scandal (1920s)

This infamous scandal during the Harding administration involved the secret leasing of federal oil reserves by the Secretary of the Interior, Albert B. Fall, in exchange for personal gifts and loans.

Demand for oil rose significantly after WWI, and oil barons like Edward Doheny and Harry Sinclair wanted access to lucrative oil leases held by the U.S. Navy. But, they needed a friend in Washington who would help them. One such lease was the Teapot Dome in Wyoming.

They and others donated generously to Warren Harding during the 1920 election, with Sinclair giving a cool one million dollars (approximately $15,703,545 in today’s dollars) to the campaign and Doheny donating $25,000 and use of his luxury yacht to the candidate. The oil barons also joined Harding and members of his cabinet for poker parties at the White House after his election. 

Harding reciprocated their generosity by appointing an industry-friendly New Mexico senator named Albert Fall as Secretary of the Interior. Fall was a foe of conservative, environment-friendly politicians like Theordore Roosevelt and believed that federal lands should be turned over to private interests for exploitation rather than conserved for future generations. 

He was also an old friend and poker buddy of Edward Doheny. 

Under pressure and in secret, Fall got Harding to issue an executive order that circumvented the Navy and privately granted lucrative leases in California and the smaller, but more productive field at Teapot Dome. The favor was repaid by Doheny and Sinclair in the form of “loans'' and Liberty Bonds totaling more than $500,000 dollars that went directly into Fall’s various bank accounts. 

The deals were leaked to the Wall Street Journal by an insider, and the case took six years and the efforts of the Coolidge Administration to resolve after he beat Harding for re-election in 1924.

#3: ABSCAM (1980s)

ABSCAM was the code name for a high-profile FBI sting operation where several members of Congress were convicted of accepting bribes from a fake Arabian company in exchange for political favors. 

ABSCAM began as an undercover investigation of organized crime figures dealing in stolen art and ended with FBI agents recovering $600 million in fraudulent securities. 

Posing as a rich Arab Sheik who headed a fake, Long Island-based business called Abdul Enterprises that was interested in buying, agents recruited an informant who connected them with underworld figures dealing in stolen art.  

That operation uncovered a trail of corruption that wound through New York and New Jersey and led straight to Washington, D.C. It involved everything from illegally granting gambling licenses to the sale of fake stocks, with one state official being taped stuffing bribe money in his pockets while exclaiming “I’ve got larceny in my blood.” 

By the time the operation was concluded, the agency arrested and successfully prosecuted a senator, six members of Congress, and more than a dozen organized crime figures. 

#4: Rod Blagojevich’s Corruption (2000s)

In 2008, Barack Obama celebrated a historic win as America’s first Black president. Under Illinois law, the state’s governor had the authority to appoint a new state senator to Obama's newly vacated senate seat. 

Governor Rod Blagojevich (pictured at the top of this article) saw this as an opportunity to enrich himself, exclaiming on secret recordings revealed during the investigation “I’ve got this thing, and it’s f—ing golden. I’m not giving it up for f—-ing nothing.”

One attempted scheme involved offering Obama’s seat to the new president’s preferred choice of Valerie Jarrett, but only in exchange for a cabinet post for himself. Another deal that fell through when Jarrett removed her name from consideration was offering the post to Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. in exchange for $1.5 million in cash donations from Jackson’s supporters. 

Blagojevich also stalled $8 million in funding for a local children’s hospital in an effort to pressure the hospital’s director to host a $25,000 fundraiser for his election campaign. Next on his agenda was an attempt to get a $100,000 “donation” in exchange for signing a bill permitting horse racing in Illinois. 

Through an extensive investigation, Blagojevich was charged with more than 20 counts, including wire fraud, attempted extortion, conspiracy to commit bribery, conspiracy to commit extortion, and lying to the FBI. After multiple trials starting in 2010, he was ultimately convicted of 17 charges, including six counts related to attempts to sell the senate seat. His sentence was commuted by Donald Trump in 2020. 

The Role of Independent Candidates in Fighting Graft

Independent candidates, unbound by the constraints and often murky obligations of establishment political parties, can offer a fresh perspective on governance. Their political independence can be an antidote to the entrenchment of corrupt practices. 

By voting for independents who champion transparency and accountability, informed citizens can inject new life into a political system that has been historically marred by graft. Voters can achieve this goal by:

  • Breaking the Cycle of Corruption: Independent candidates, not owing any allegiance to traditional party structures, may be less susceptible to the entrenched systems of graft.

  • Advocating for Transparency: Many independents run on platforms that emphasize open governance and the implementation of robust anti-corruption measures.

  • Encouraging Civic Engagement: The presence of independent candidates can stimulate a more engaged and informed electorate, which is essential in combating political corruption.

Final Thoughts

Graft in American politics is a multifaceted issue that’s deeply embedded in the fabric of our government institutions. While it presents a formidable challenge, the rise of independent candidates and an informed, vigilant electorate can play a crucial role in mitigating its impact. 

As citizens, understanding the nuances of graft and actively participating in the political process are vital steps towards creating a more transparent and accountable system of governance.

Help Support Anti-Corruption Candidates

Corruption in government is nothing new, but it has become as blatant as it seems uncontrollable. But, it’s costing us in terms of money for important government programs, trust in the system, and progress. 

The best solution is to elect candidates to office who aren’t beholden to special interests or indebted to the establishment party machine. 

The mission of Good Party is to support promising independent candidates who will inject some much-needed integrity into our political system. We’re not a political party or a corporation. We’re a movement. Will you join us

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Tired of politics as usual?

Become part of the movement to end America's political dysfunction.
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Political Corruption
Political Dysfunction
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U.S. Department of Energy - Science - 389 005 009 (9786312446) (cropped 2)
By Good Party Politics Team
The GoodParty.org politics team is focused on transforming the political landscape by promoting transparency, accountability, and positive change. They aim to engage citizens in the political process, encourage informed decision-making, and support candidates who prioritize the common good. Their mission revolves around creating a more fair and just political system, fostering collaboration, and breaking down traditional barriers of partisanship.