4/26/2012 7:13:00 AM Evidence shows public corruption cases hard to prove
By the numbers
Thousands of federal, state and local officials have been convicted on public corruption charges. Here’s a snapshot of the numbers from 2001 to 2010. 10,012: Number of federal officials charged in public corruption cases in U.S., 2001-2010 2,016: Number of state officials charged in public corruption cases in U.S., 2001-2010 5,253: Number of state officials charged in public corruption cases in U.S., 2001-2010 83: Number of public corruption convictions in Northern District of Indiana, 2001-2010
INDIANAPOLIS — As part of his promise to make public corruption one of his top prosecution priorities, U.S. Attorney Joe Hogsett has set up a hot line for anonymous whistle blowers.
He doesn’t think he’ll have any problem attracting callers. Hogsett is convinced the scarcity of public corruption cases generated by federal prosecutors in central and southern Indiana over the last decade doesn’t mean there aren’t officials violating the public trust in a criminal way.
“I’d like to think that was the case,” said Hogsett, who 18 months ago took over the role as chief federal prosecutor for a district that covers two-thirds of the state. “But I don’t think it is.”
But if Hogsett hopes to spark a flurry of investigative leads with the new hot line, (at 317-229-2443) he also knows following through is a much tougher task.
Experienced prosecutors say public corruption crimes are among the most difficult and time-consuming cases to pursue. High-profile by their nature, they typically involve people who covet power and are skilled at accessing its spoils in secretive ways.
Classic public corruption cases — in which money is exchanged for favors — are “very difficult” to prosecute, said Craig Bradley, an Indiana University law professor who worked as a federal prosecutor for the U.S. Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section in Washington, D.C.
One major reason: When money passes from one person to another in a corrupt transaction, it’s often impossible to prosecute unless one of those persons is willing to admit his or her role.
“It’s not like the guy who goes into a 7-Eleven store, pulls out a gun on somebody and demands money and gets caught,” Bradley said. “There’s usually no videotape of the crime.”
And often few people eager to talk. When Bradley helped prosecute a 1976 case known as “Koreagate,” involving allegations of bribes funneled to U.S. congressmen by the South Korean government, he was met with walls of silence.
That was particularly true among the staff members of congressmen adept at inspiring devotion from their staff. “I was surprised by that attitude of ‘I’m just going to blindly protect my boss,’” Bradley said.
Hogsett’s announcement earlier this week that he’s formed a multi-agency Public Corruption Working Group is an indicator of the resources needed to curb corruption. The group brings together investigators from a myriad of agencies, including the FBI, the IRS, the Secret Service, the Indiana State Police, and the federal departments of labor, housing and urban development, and health and human services.
It’s modeled after a group that U.S. Attorney David Capp oversees in the Northern District of Indiana. Capp has been working such cases for 27 years; he started as a young federal prosecutor, hired by his boss, he said, “to put a dent in public corruption in northwest Indiana.”
From 2001 to 2010, his office, which covers one-third of Indiana’s 92 counties, prosecuted 83 public corruption cases. The U.S. Attorney’s office that Hogsett now oversees, covering two-thirds of the state, prosecuted 57 cases.
Capp has overseen prosecutions that run the gamut from police officers moonlighting as drug runners to a mayor who used city employees to renovate his family’s homes.
Public corruption cases are labor- and time-intensive, he said. “Oftentimes, there is a difficult and confusing financial trail to piece together,” Capp said. “You need investigators who know how to do that. You have to make sure every ‘t’ is crossed, every ‘i’ is dotted and every column adds up.”
In 2010, a U.S. Supreme Court decision narrowed the scope of a 1988 law that makes it a crime for public officials to scheme to deprive the public of their “right of honest services.” The court ruled that public officials can’t be convicted of defrauding the public unless they enriched themselves by taking a bribe or a kickback.
It means secret deals made by public officials, or conflicts of interest they may engage in, aren’t crimes unless they involve a direct payoff. That’s made it tougher for prosecutors, though Bradley said it may have also helped to rein in some overly aggressive prosecutors.
Three years ago, federal prosecutors pursuing public corruption cases were keenly reminded of how perilous the work is, if not done right. A federal judge voided the conviction of former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, a Republican from Alaska, after allegations of prosecutorial misconduct arose.
Several top-ranking officials in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, which oversees public corruption prosecutions, subsequently lost their jobs.
Hogsett is mindful of the perils, including the classic defense in public corruption cases: That it’s political. Hogsett is a longtime Democratic activist who served as Secretary of State and ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate.
He’s pledged to turn a blind eye to partisan politics in pursuing public corruption cases. As evidence, he cites recent prosecutions by his office of two Indianapolis city councilmen: one a Republican convicted of taking bribes to grease the wheels for a new strip club; the other a Democrat charged with swindling more than $1 million from an investor.
Hogsett has adopted a mantra that he repeats often: “It doesn’t matter who you are or who you know,” Hogsett said. “If you violate the public trust, we’ll find you.”