Missing the facts about government corruption

I read with great interest your editorial on government corruption. To really understand corruption in the government you must first understand the extent of corruption. It reminds me of a college 101 course that I was required to take as a freshman entitled “How to lie with statistics.” The course was less about numbers than just plain critical thinking.

Let’s take a closer look at the basis upon which you draw the bold conclusion that...

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I read with great interest your editorial on government corruption. To really understand corruption in the government you must first understand the extent of corruption. It reminds me of a college 101 course that I was required to take as a freshman entitled “How to lie with statistics.” The course was less about numbers than just plain critical thinking.

Let’s take a closer look at the basis upon which you draw the bold conclusion that the “bigger picture” indicates that federal government corruption is not becoming more corrupt.

Your first conclusion is, “We’ve got pretty strong institutional safeguards and personal biases against corruption.” Yes, but having safeguards in place is not enough. Safeguards against corruption do not mean a thing unless they are married with effective oversight. So the real question in the government corruption debate becomes are the ethics rules actually being implemented?

My real world experience tells me no. For example, I once reported serious U.S. government criminal conduct to the Office of Government Ethics only to be told by the director, “We are not responsible for overseeing the ethical conduct of government agencies. Our job is procedural.”

The editorial then cites the work of Professor Jeffrey Milyo of the University of Missouri, concluding, “Corruption instances occur, but they’re not growing. At least in terms of prosecutions and convictions, the instances are rare, given the size and scope of government in the aggregate.” Of course, this conclusion relies on the truth of the premise that corruption is reported and investigated in the first place.

Again, my real world experience tells me that it is not. Do not believe for one minute the FBI’s pretty little webpage declaring what a good job they are doing in fighting government corruption. In my job, I have been reporting U.S. government criminal conduct against small businesses to the FBI for many years. In every case, the FBI has simply turned a blind eye to the corruption whenever it involves another federal agency. The harsh political reality of the matter is that investigating corruption in the government has fallen to last place on the list of the FBI’s priorities.

For example, in one case involving the theft of millions of dollars of intellectual property from a small company by a government agency and a group of their contractors, the head of the Criminal Division of the FBI reported that the agency did not have the time, resources or inclination to investigate the serious crimes that were committed given “other higher priorities.” There are literally thousands of cases of systemic government corruption just like this one that go uninvestigated every year. So much for the conclusion that the instances of government corruption are “rare.”

Next, the editorial proclaims, “Corruption can take small forms. … Using an independent research firm, it [Sailpoint] surveyed 1,000 people working in offices in the United States and Europe and Australia. One in five said they would sell their organizational password for less than $1,000.” To most observers who understand the extended order effects of compromising large computer networks this number is frightening. Hardly an indication that corruption is not a serious and growing problem.

I retired from the federal service in 2004, after a 30-year career. After I retired, I went into the private sector where I have continued to work with the government. Although your editorial piece may make all of us in the civil service feel better about ourselves and the fight against government corruption perhaps we need to put on our critical thinking caps and ask ourselves, “Is everything we prefer to think about ourselves really true?”

Dr. John Hnatio is the director of the Institute for Complexity Management (ICM), which is a charitable non-profit organization dedicated to helping small business victims of government corruption. He is a former civil servant who served in the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) for 30 years before his retirement in 2004. You can learn more about Hnatio’s work by visiting this website.

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