Local government is essential to helping our communities run smoothly. Sometimes, though, corruption can infect local government operations and bring harm to communities. This guide will cover four common types of corruption, steps for identifying red flags and reporting corruption, and examples of corruption at the local level.
Corruption can take place at any level of government, as well as within corporations and private institutions. Mayoral offices, city managers, police departments, and other offices have all sometimes been found guilty of corruption. Often, these instances of corruption develop when elected officials or public servants misuse their power for personal gain.
How severe of a problem is corruption in the United States? The 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked the United States as the world’s 24th least corrupt nation. This means that while the United States is less corrupt than many countries, it is still more corrupt than many other developed nations, including the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, and Australia. Combating corruption in local government is one way to reduce the overall level of corruption in the United States.
Understanding specific forms of corruption can help to make the concept of corruption more tangible. Below are four common types of corruption, with examples. In many of the cases described, officials participated in multiple forms of corruption at once.
When an elected official makes decisions based on their own personal gain rather than on the well-being of their community, they are becoming involved in a conflict of interest.
One notable example of a conflict of interest concerns the case of the former mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin. In 2014, Ray Nagin was convicted of 20 charges, including bribery, money laundering, and conspiracy. Nagin used his official capacity to give favorable treatment to individuals who provided him with money and services. He also misused his power to benefit his granite company, Stone Age LLC. By making decisions based on their benefit to his personal supporters and company, rather than on their benefit to New Orleans, Nagin failed to fulfill his responsibilities as mayor.
Embezzlement is the intentional misuse or misappropriation of funds or property entrusted to an official’s care. In many cases, embezzlement occurs when an official transfers government funds to their personal accounts.
One example of embezzlement concerns Rita Crundwell, the former comptroller of Dixon, Illinois. In 2013, Crundwell was sentenced to over 19 years in prison for stealing $53.7 million from the city of Dixon. As comptroller, Crundwell’s job had been to oversee the city government’s financial activity. Starting in 1990, Crundwell transferred money from city accounts to a secret account which only she could access. She then used the money to finance her quarter horse business and make expensive purchases, including trucks and luxury vehicles. This case of embezzlement diverted millions of dollars that should have been serving the needs of the people of Dixon.
Fraud is a broad term which describes intentional deception or the deliberate misrepresentation of facts and information for personal gain. One specific type of fraud is wire fraud, which refers to the use of electronic communication to deceive or misrepresent information. This can include communication over phone calls, via email, or through other electronic means.
The San Francisco City Hall corruption scandal is one recent example of fraud in local government. In 2020, the scandal began when the FBI arrested Mohammed Nuru, the head of San Francisco’s public works department, on charges of attempted bribery. Authorities arrested numerous other city officials after Nuru. The officials’ crimes included using municipal funds to reward supporters and exorbitantly overcharging residents for garbage collection services. By deceiving citizens for personal gain, Nuru and other officials were committing fraud.
Nepotism means giving an unfair advantage to family members or friends in employment or other opportunities.
An example of nepotism is the case of the “clout farms” in Cook County, Illinois. In 2009, a civic watchdog group and the media exposed multiple townships within the county as “a cash crop” for local politicians, many of whom received multiple salaries and pensions. Many of the local politicians were also relatives of one another. In Leyden township, just eight families made up 18 elected positions. Critics observed that an unfair advantage had been given to the relatives of those already in power.
The examples of corruption described above can occur in many different scenarios. In each of the examples mentioned, the citizens of the affected communities suffered because of the corrupt practices of their public officials. Most often, resources that were meant to serve the needs of the community were instead used to benefit only the corrupt individuals.
Identifying red flags is the first step to recognizing and then combating corruption in local government. Note that these red flags may not always mean corruption is taking place. A red flag is not a guarantee of corruption. Instead, a red flag is a sign that more investigation may be required.
Here are several red flags to look out for:
If elected officials or public servants suddenly or inexplicably gain a considerable amount of wealth, their communities may want to investigate further. Officials who amass wealth through embezzlement or fraud may begin to lead lavish lifestyles. They may make expensive purchases, such as buying luxury vehicles or large homes.
Another sign of embezzlement or fraud is irregular financial activity. There may be unauthorized expenditures, unexplained budget overruns, or discrepancies between financial records. Government funds may also be diverted in unexplained ways. If citizens can assess their local government’s financial activity, they can more easily identify signs of corruption. Transparency and accountability are essential here.
Which companies or contractors do local government officials hire to perform work? Which people are appointed or hired for positions? If the same companies or contractors are hired over and over again — and especially if they produce subpar work, or if they are connected to one of the government officials — favoritism may be occurring.
The same principle applies to the people appointed or hired by the local government. Citizens can watch out for new appointees or hires who lack the proper qualifications, or who are closely connected to people in power. These kinds of favoritism could be a sign of nepotism, cronyism, or a conflict of interest.
Citizens can also watch out for public services whose costs keep increasing. In this case, it can be helpful to compare the costs of services — such as waste management — to those of neighboring communities.
Transparency is one of the best ways for local governments to avoid corruption. By providing citizens with accurate public information and financial records, officials can remain accountable to their communities. If officials refuse to disclose information that should be public, corruption may be occurring.
Have any members of your community already raised concerns about potential corruption? If yes, how have officials responded to those concerns? If accusations or complaints have been brushed aside without investigation, it may be worth taking a closer look. It is essential that we hold our elected officials accountable for their actions.
Remember that a red flag does not always mean corruption is occurring. However, red flags can be valuable signs that more investigation is necessary.
If you have identified a red flag, looked into the concern, and are worried that corruption could be taking place, reporting and becoming a whistleblower could be the next step. Here are five steps to keep in mind as you report corruption:
Procedures for reporting your concerns vary from place to place. Do your research and identify what channel seems most secure, appropriate, and effective. You can look for public corruption or whistleblower hotlines. You can also contact an ombudsman, whose job it is to investigate complaints, or other internal agencies.
Ensuring anonymity can be important for keeping yourself safe and out of the spotlight. Look into your state’s whistleblower protection policies and be sure of your rights before reporting suspected corruption.
Find out what information is publicly available concerning your complaint. If you are a member of a government organization, you may have access to additional information that can support your claims.
Advocacy organizations and the media can play an important role in publicizing corruption concerns and pushing for further investigation. Reaching out to watchdog groups or investigative journalists can give your case valuable resources.
Using the evidence and resources you have gathered, file your report of suspected corruption.
After filing your report, follow up with the agency or organization you contacted and make sure your complaint has been processed. If any investigations develop, or if you receive requests for additional information, follow up and cooperate to the best of your ability.
The Bell, California scandal serves as a helpful case study of how citizens can help to uncover corruption in local government.
In July of 2010, the Los Angeles Times revealed that Bell’s city manager, Robert Rizzo, was being paid a salary of $787,000 — almost twice that of Barack Obama, who was president at the time. This exorbitant salary was a clear red flag of potential corruption. Following this revelation, concerned residents formed a citizens activist group, the Bell Association to Stop the Abuse (BASTA). By September, BASTA had gathered the 4,000 signatures required to initiate a recall election, where citizens could vote to remove four city council members from office. By forming a citizens activist group and making their voices heard, these community members helped to expose the widespread corruption in their city.
In 2013, five former elected officials were convicted on felony counts of misappropriation of public funds. The officials had stolen about $5.5 million from Bell taxpayers. Through the efforts of investigative journalists and concerned citizens, these corrupt officials were able to be brought to justice.
Local government is meant to serve, protect, and support local communities, but sometimes corruption can disrupt the essential services it provides. Whether it be a conflict of interest, embezzlement, fraud, nepotism, or another form of corruption, corruption at the local level is always important to identify and report.
Eliminating corruption in local government is a key step toward larger anti-corruption efforts. To find independent candidates who support anti-corruption efforts, learn more about how Good Party is building a movement to fight political dysfunction.