Let’s talk about government corruption

Scientists and statisticians caution against looking at a small cluster of events and deriving a trend. A cluster of events involving military and civilian agency corruption can make one wonder, is the military becoming more corrupt? Is the federal government becoming more corrupt?

The bigger picture says no. Let’s hope not. To a nation, corruption is a virulent form of cancer.
Once it gets to a certain point, there’s no return. In the U.S. and in particular the federal government, we’ve got pretty strong institutional safeguards and personal biases against corruption.

For this column, I’m talking about individual corruption like taking bribes for contracts or jobs, that sort of thing. A bigger debate is whether things like tax breaks or subsidies for this or that favored industry really represent a form of corruption — that’s for another day.

I recently interviewed an economics processor, Jeffrey Milyo of the University of Missouri, who’d examined detailed court records of federal, state and local government corruption. 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.

If that’s the case, it explains why corruption startles and causes headlines when it does occur. The 46-month federal prison sentence for disgraced former Navy Capt. Daniel Dusek in connection with the “Fat Leonard” scheme. Defense attorney and former JAG Brian Bouffard tells me the worst thing about the Dusek affair is not that he accepted luxury baubles and hookers, but that he enabled sharing of crucial and classified ship movement, exposing the fleet to danger. At one point he potentially compromised the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. Had he never heard of the USS Cole?

Good thing Leonard Glenn himself is a Malaysian national. Singapore might’ve hung him.

Columnist and former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote a few years back something that stuck with me. Referring to the Catholic Church’s ongoing issue with pedophile priests, Noonan wrote that if enough individuals indulge in corruption, they threaten the foundations of even large, powerful, rich and respected institutions.

Check out this piece from the Huffington Post about a web of corrupt individuals in the government oil and fuel contracts business. Even companies that conduct mandatory training in ethics have long written policies on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and employ high level compliance officers can’t presume immunity.

Corruption can take small forms. Yesterday I was reading a short report put out by an identity governance vendor called SailPoint. Using an independent research firm, it 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.

You can’t always stop someone intent on corruption. Ethics training only works for primarily ethical people. But like talking to your kids about sex, you want to get there first before the bad influences come in.

Every field, in every nation, in every time has dealt with corruption. Even the Bible is full of injunctions against corruption — those old-time writers knew human nature as well as the most modern psychologist. How an organization responds determines whether corruption will flourish. The only right reaction: Treat it aggressively like the disease it is.

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More commentary from Tom Temin