Public corruption is a breach of trust by federal, state, or local officials—often with the help of private sector accomplices. According to the FBI website, public corruption is also the FBI’s top criminal investigative priority. To explain why the Bureau takes public corruption so seriously and how it investigates, Special Agent Patrick Bohrer, assistant section chief of our Public Corruption/Civil Rights program at FBI Headquarters answers a few questions.
Question: Why is public corruption so high on the FBI’s list of investigative priorities?
Answer: Because of its impact. Corrupt public officials undermine our country’s national security, our overall safety, the public trust, and confidence in the U.S. government, wasting billions of dollars along the way. This corruption can tarnish virtually every aspect of society. For example, a border official might take a bribe, knowingly or unknowingly letting in a truck containing weapons of mass destruction. Or corrupt state legislators could cast deciding votes on a bill providing funding or other benefits to a company for the wrong reasons. Or at the local level, a building inspector might be paid to overlook some bad wiring, which could cause a deadly fire down the road.
Q: Can you describe the kinds of public corruption that the FBI investigates?
A: It really runs the gamut. Bribery is the most common. But there’s also extortion, embezzlement, racketeering, kickbacks, and money laundering, as well as wire, mail, bank, and tax fraud. Right now, based on our intelligence on emerging trends, we are focused specifically on several major issues: corruption along our national borders; corrupt officials who take advantage of natural disasters or economic crises to divert some of the government’s aid into their own pockets; and a myriad of officials who may personally benefit from the economic stimulus funding.
Q: Where do you find this corruption?
A: Just about everywhere—at the federal, state, and local levels throughout the country. And I should point out, the vast majority of our country’s public officials are honest and work hard to improve the lives of the American people. But a small number make decisions for the wrong reasons—usually, to line their own pockets or those of friends and family. These people can be found—and have been found—in legislatures, courts, city halls, law enforcement departments, school and zoning boards, government agencies of all kinds (including those that regulate elections and transportation), and even companies that do business with government.
Q: How does the FBI investigate public corruption?
A: We’re in a unique position to investigate allegations of public corruption. Our lawful use of sophisticated investigative tools and methods—like undercover operations, court-authorized electronic surveillance, and informants—often gives us a front-row seat to witness the actual exchange of bribe money or a backroom handshake that seals an illegal deal…and enough evidence to send the culprits to prison. But we have plenty of help. We often work in conjunction with the inspector general offices from various federal agencies, as well as with our state and local partners. And we depend greatly on assistance from the public. So let me end by saying, if anyone out there has any information about potential wrongdoing by a public official, please submit a tip online or contact your local FBI field office. Your help really makes a difference.