by Elliott Stonecipher
public corruption is a pernicious ill

Few would argue that public corruption is a pernicious ill, here or anywhere else.  Talking or writing about it, I certainly know, touches an ultra-sensitive nerve with my audience, especially anywhere corruption finds unusual welcome.  I believe that nerve is so raw because we well understand how corruption diminishes the community, but hold little hope that those who nurture and peddle the crop will ever suffer a poor harvest.

The University of Illinois at Chicago’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs has released their study of which cities and states in America are most ravaged by public corruption’s presence and practice.  The study bases its conclusions on data from the U. S. Department of Justice, specifically the number of public corruption convictions in cities and states between 1976 and 2010.  (SEE study here.)

The real purpose of the UIC study is to broadcast the high incidence of public corruption convictions in Chicago and Illinois.  Along the way, though, it finds Louisiana to be 2nd-most-corrupt state as measured by convictions-per-capita.  New Orleans ranks 15th in that category among 15 “major cities.”

These measurements are informative and important.  Nevertheless, far past such easy metrics would be measurement of actual instances of public corruption:  not just federal cases, not cases publicly investigated, not prosecutions or convictions.  A real measurement – one which would yield data no community could ignore – would be how many acts of public corruption are conceived and attempted.  Such measurement is not possible, of course, but awareness of that fact points to another … any such count of corrupt acts conceived and attempted in and around politics and government will yield a really big number.

Here, in the “2nd most corrupt state in America,” a solid definition of this curse is useful, and the Cornell University Law School, via its Legal Information Institute (LII), offers an excellent one:

Public corruption involves a breach of public trust and/or abuse of position by federal, state, or local officials and their private sector accomplices. By broad definition, a government official, whether elected, appointed or hired, may violate federal law when he/she asks, demands, solicits, accepts, or agrees to receive anything of value in return for being influenced in the performance of their official duties.

While most can only imagine that public corruption is systemic, those of us who spend many years in and around government and politics have certain knowledge of the fact.  Corruption’s manifestation is sometimes obvious, but most times not.  The evidence of such an act typically falls into the netherworld of what is difficult to prove, regardless of how many know of its fact.  When laborious investigation and prosecution is needed to prove a public corruption case, the corrupt actors will almost certainly get away with it.  The corrupt know this very well, and exploit it with great satisfaction, often times publicly.  In America, that inherent advantage to corrupt actors was for many decades mitigated to a degree by a vigorous and watchful news media, but those days are gone, and corrupt public officials have almost nothing to fear.

I make it my business – without being paid to do so – to identify, research and spread the word about such issues in our neck of the woods.  It has never been possible for me to look the other way, and to me, the operative fact is obvious:  the money and community health at issue is mine / ours, they do NOT belong to those we elect, appoint or hire as supposed “stewards of the public trust.”  If a mugger steals my wallet and I catch him, he’ll be relatively easy to publicly hold to account for his thievery.  Meanwhile, many others in and around our public business steal far, far more from us than the mugger, but almost never meet his fate.  I even accord the mugger a modicum of respect because he at least must reveal himself and run a bit of a risk in his criminal act.

For any who do not know, my pro bono work – including such things as working with our “old” Louisiana Board of Ethics in opposing Governor Jindal’s attack on ethics enforcement – are referred to by some hereabouts as “Elliott’s fights.”  The reference, in context, is always derogatory and dismissive.

A recent example came in the work I and others are doing to get the Hwy. 3132 Extension built, and the person who dismissed the work as one of “Elliott’s fights” holds what most see as a position of community leadership.  The issue is the present intention of some public officials to “reward” a private developer with a seven-figure, taxpayer-money “benefit” which will, in fact, harm the property values and quality of life of many of those very taxpayers.  (Whether this would-be deal is corrupt or maladministration of process, we cannot cannot yet know.)  My comment to the man who dismissed our labor was, “This should be your fight, too.”  Fact is, though, it is not his fight:  he’s OK with this.

I’m not one to depend on quotations of others, but I’m about to make an exception.  As you might imagine, there are a few hundred great quotes about corruption, evidence no doubt that its existence has long dogged and harmed us.

Of all people, the late astronomer and author, Carl Sagan, cut right to the core of my experience and belief when he said:

“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”

I hold that public corruption is our greatest Bamboozle, and the charlatans are the many who are “in on the deal.”

Within me, I’ve learned, are gradients of stored experience:  there are things I think, things I believe, things I know, and Things Of Which I Am Certain.  There are very few bits stored in that last file, but here is one of them:  the corrupt among us – no matter how many or how active – are a given, so this isn’t really about them.  This is about who, once truly aware of the corrupt, engages and fights them.

Elliott Stonecipher

For any reader who may not know, this and all other such commentary has been done strictly in the public interest.  No compensation of any kind has been solicited, offered or accepted for this work.

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