Official Corruption Prosecutions Have Increased
The latest available data from the Department of Justice show that during the first six months of FY 2021 the government reported 236 new official corruption prosecutions. If this activity continues at the same pace, the annual total of prosecutions will be 472 for this fiscal year. This estimate is up 38 percent over the past fiscal year when the number of prosecutions totaled 342 according to the internal case-by-case government records obtained and analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University after successful litigation under the Freedom of Information Act.
Official corruption prosecutions include bribery, graft, conflicts of interest, and other violations by federal, state, and local officials and law enforcement personnel. These cases brought by federal government attorneys involve the prosecution of governors, judges, federal and state legislators, and other federal, state, and local public officials who have been prosecuted for their criminal actions while in public office. Additional cases include the prosecution of government employees charged with misconduct in public office, including attempts by private citizens to bribe or otherwise corrupt them.
Figure 1. Federal Criminal Prosecutions for Official Corruption, FY 1987 - FY 2021 (October-March)
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Why Are Public Corruption Prosecutions Up?
The increase in prosecutions does not necessarily imply that the actual extent of public corruption is on the rise. In fact, there are no reliable figures on the true extent of public corruption across the country. In general, because there are typically so many more offenses for most types of crimes than there are available law enforcement resources, a great deal of discretion is exercised by investigative agencies as well as by federal prosecutors on which matters to investigate and which of these to take to court. Thus, official corruption prosecution trends are believed to largely reflect the relative emphasis placed on these types of cases by investigative agencies and by federal prosecutors at any point in time rather than actual trends in crime rates.
In this case, what we do know is that during the first six months of FY 2021 there has been an increase in investigations that have been referred to and acted upon by federal prosecutors, and a slightly higher proportion of these which resulted in actual charges being filed. Even with this rise, federal prosecutors actually brought charges in less than four out of ten (39%) of the referrals they received from federal, state and local investigative agencies during the first six months of FY 2021. This was still slightly higher than the 35 percent of referrals that resulted in charges being filed during the Trump years.
As shown above in Figure 1, over the last 35 years official corruption cases actually peaked in FY 1998 when records show 906 defendants were prosecuted. Since then, prosecution numbers have generally slowly fallen with only short periods where prosecutions briefly increased.
As TRAC previously reported, during the Trump years, prosecutions reached their lowest levels. The further decrease in prosecutions during FY 2020, of course, was exacerbated by the pandemic. Criminal investigations and prosecutions of all types dropped sharply immediately after the pandemic hit and federal offices closed across the country. However, comparing the pre-pandemic first six months of FY 2020 (October 2019-March 2020) with the same period in FY 2021 (October 2020-March 2021), even though the country was still struggling with the pandemic, federal official corruption prosecutions still saw an increase.
The change so far this fiscal year cannot be attributed to the Biden administration. In fact, the higher filings occurred between October and December 2020-prior to the change in administrations.
Increase in Federal Corruption Prosecutions-not State and Local-Drives Trend
Internal case-by-case information recorded by federal prosecutors and obtained by TRAC provide additional details on the various types of corruption cases that have been brought. For many years, corruption offenses involved federal-level officials and employees greatly outnumbered those for state and local officials. See Figure 2.
Figure 2. Federal Criminal Official Corruption Prosecutions for Federal-Level Versus Local and State-Level Offenses, FY 1987 - FY 2021 (October-March)
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However, after federal-type corruption filings peaked in FY 1998, these types of prosecutions fell sharply so that for many years the make-up of cases were roughly evenly split between federal and state-local corruption cases. Then, starting towards the end of the Obama administration and continuing through the Trump administration, both types of corruption cases fell but the drop was less precipitous for state and local corruption matters.
The recent jump in corruption prosecutions during the last six months largely involved federal- level corruption matters, rather than state, local and other individuals. See Appendix Table for detailed figures.
Most Active Judicial Districts Prosecuting Official Corruption
Federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans) filed public corruption charges against the largest number of defendants—a total of 34—in public corruption cases across the nation during the first six month of FY 2021. A total of 31 out of 34 of these defendants were indicted in a single case arising out of an investigation by the Coast Guard Investigative Service involving a "test score-fixing scheme at a United States Coast Guard exam center." According to the indictment, individuals obtained a range of licenses, including for officer-level positions such as master, chief mate, and chief engineer, by paying bribes for falsified exam scores certifying they had passed the required exams.
The number of corruption filings in Eastern Louisiana outnumbered those filed in the District of Columbia where 16 defendants were charged with official corruption offenses. D.C. cases involved investigations by the Defense Department Office of the Inspector General, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Department of Transportation.
In third and fourth place for the most cases filed, was the Central District of California (Los Angeles) with 13 prosecutions, followed by New Jersey with 12. Three districts were tied for fifth place, each with 9 public corruption defendants charged. These were: the Northern District of Illinois (Chicago), the Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn), and the Southern District of New York (Manhattan).
Because federal judicial districts vary so widely in population size, to adjust for population differences, the line-up for the top 10 districts with the highest per capita prosecution rates for alleged official corruption offenses is somewhat different. These top ten districts are shown in Table 1. Here the District of Columbia ranks first, followed by the Eastern District of Louisiana.
In third place was the Southern District of Alabama (Mobile) with 6 official corruption prosecutions arising out of a single case investigated by the Small Business Administration for the alleged bribery of public officials. According to the indictment, this case involved false and fraudulent Economic Injury Disaster Loan applications to provide loans to small businesses and nonprofit organizations experiencing substantial financial disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
TRAC offers free monthly reports on program categories such as white-collar crime, immigration, drugs, weapons and terrorism and on selected government agencies such as the IRS, FBI, ATF and DHS. For the latest information on prosecutions and convictions, go to https://trac.syr.edu/tracreports/bulletins/. In addition, subscribers to the TRACFed data service can generate custom reports for a specific agency, judicial district, program category, lead charge or judge via the TRAC Data Interpreter.