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A Handful of Unlawful Behaviors, Led by Fraud and Bribery, Account for Nearly All Public Corruption Convictions Since 1985

Every public corruption case is different in the details, but the thousands of corruption convictions in federal courts since the mid-1980s have largely boiled down to four categories of criminal conduct: fraud, bribery, extortion, and conspiracy.
Date Published
June 5, 2020

A comprehensive analysis of nearly 57,000 corruption cases in federal courts spanning 30 years revealed that fraud and bribery dominated the types of conduct underlying criminal cases, accounting for 76% of the lead charges in cases resulting in convictions. Those two unlawful behavior types, combined with extortion and conspiracy, broadly informed the lead charges in virtually all examined corruption convictions in federal courts from 1985 to 2015.

That was a key finding of a case records study by a research team led by Jay S. Albanese of Virginia Commonwealth University. The purpose of the study, sponsored by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), was to fill a literature gap with empirically based knowledge of prosecution practices, corruption-fighting statutes, and types of behavior underlying prosecutions. New insights on corrupt behavior could inform new policies to prevent some corrupt conduct and discover some corrupt acts earlier.[1] The findings may also help the justice system focus crime prevention and enforcement strategies on those behaviors most often associated with criminal prosecution, and distinguish among types of corruption more likely to occur at the federal, state, or local level, the researchers said.[2]

All of the corruption case records examined came from federal courts, accessed in court and prosecutor databases, and the researchers compared cases in three different tiers: federal-level, state-level, and local-level corruption.

Corruption Crime Types Vary Among Government Levels 

Fraud was the focus of corruption charges in 40.6% of all analyzed cases, with bribery accounting for the lead charge in 35.6% of cases.[3] But the prevalence of charged conduct categories varied somewhat depending on the level of government activity addressed in the prosecution. In federal-level corruption litigation, the first-charged conduct was fraud in 5,579 of 12,663 cases (44.1%) and bribery in 5,129 cases (41%). Similarly, in state-level cases, lead fraud charges outnumbered lead bribery charges, 1,112 cases (29.3%) to 1,070 (28%), out of a total of 3,792 state-level convictions. But in local-government corruption matters, lead bribery charges exceeded lead fraud charges, 2,421 cases (34%) to 2,051 (29%), out of 7,090 total convictions.

Extortion charges were a distant third among lead charges in federal- and local-level corruption cases in federal court, but extortion led all crime types charged in state-level matters. In those cases, extortion led fraud by 1,156 to 1,112 charge types (30% to 29%), with bribery trailing slightly at 1,070 (28%), out of the total of 3,792 state-level corruption charge types.  

Together, the four prevalent categories of corrupt behavior — fraud, bribery, and extortion, along with conspiracy — “form the operational meaning of corruption in practice,” the researchers concluded.[4]

Drilling down, the team identified eight discrete corrupt activities, covering all public corruption, through a closer analysis of about 2,400 cases from 2013 to 2015. Those eight activities are:[5]

  1. Receipt of a bribe
  2. Solicitation of a bribe
  3. Extortion
  4. Contract fraud
  5. Embezzlement
  6. Official misconduct
  7. Obstruction of justice
  8. Violation of regulatory laws

The researchers noted a nexus between heightened corruption risk and public service at the state and, especially, local levels. They pointed out that public officials serving on government boards and councils, as well as in elected office and law enforcement positions, were often employed part time, undertrained, and undersupervised. The report on corrupt behavior types said that the “lack of professionalism” in the public officials’ roles and expectations “provided the space to exploit opportunities to enrich themselves.”[6]

Remedies for Corruption

The researchers propose several corruption remedies, including:[7]

  • Transparency in contract award processes and government spending practices.
  • Dual training of individuals on public duties to avoid having a single person authorizing and reviewing payments.
  • Introducing mandatory ethics training for government entities.
  • Better protections for whistleblowers.
  • A focus on fairness in prosecutions.
  • Mandatory ethics training for federal programs and state and local entities.

What Motivated Corruption?

A separate aspect of the research by Albanese and his colleagues was an empirical analysis of corruption defendants’ criminal motivation broken down into four categories:[8]

Positive — motivated by external factors, usually social or economic, that push the individual toward crime. An assumption underlying this explanation is that changing the influences on individuals will prevent crime.

Classical — an individual decision to maximize personal benefit through corrupt conduct; it can be deterred by increasing the threat of apprehension and punishment.

Structural — driven by systemic political and economic conditions; it can be deterred by legal and structural changes to election processes, balance of power, enforcement of laws, and due process. 

Ethical — guided by individual decisions to act ethically or wrongfully; it can be deterred by education and reinforcement of ethical decisions.

For the corruption motivation analysis, researchers interviewed 72 individuals who have direct experience, in different capacities, with a variety of public corruption matters,[9] The themes that were discussed informed the coding of the interviews, and qualitative analysis software completed the evaluation.

Of the four corruption cause categories, ethical explanations led, at 38% of total explanations gleaned from the interviews and analysis; 28% offered a structural explanation; 19% offered a classical explanation; and 15% offered a positivist explanation.

About This Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ grant 2015-IJ-CX-0007, awarded to Virginia Commonwealth University. This article is based on three reports: the grantee Final Summary Overview on the project, “Developing Empirically-Driven Public Corruption Prevention Strategies” (2018), Jay S. Albanese, principal investigator; and two published articles, also written by members of the research team:

Date Published: June 5, 2020