Political blowback hampers FBI corruption probes
In 2003, the FBI Philadelphia Public Corruption Unit led by Special Agent John Roberts was closing in on a long-term investigation into a pervasive culture of “pay-to-play” political favors at Philadelphia City Hall.
A federal judge authorized a wiretap to be placed in the Mayor John Street’s office. But when word of the wiretap was leaked a multi-year investigation – with multiple witness statements, hours of surveillance, document analysis and tracking of a money trail fell – apart.
Mayoral aide George Burrell then instructed the police commissioner to sweep the office for listening devices, the wiretap was found, and a maelstrom of political rhetoric ensued afterwards.
The lasting legacy of the discovery of the mayoral wiretap was not just the embarrassment of the FBI, but the politicization of their public integrity investigation. Street claimed the investigation was part of a conspiracy led by racist Republicans in President George W. Bush’s White House to remove the popular black politician from office. Street’s political maneuver worked. Despite being under an FBI investigation, he was re-elected.
For the FBI, the leak and political fallout, led the agency to change its tactics, keeping a close hold on evidence and its agents task relative to allegations of officials who solicits, accepts, receives, or agrees to receive something of value in return for influence in the performance of an official act. Three years after the Philadelphia wiretap, as reported in the New York Times, the FBI made public corruption a priority. In 2004-2005, 1060 federal, state and local government officials were convicted nationwide; in addition to other high-profile cases such as the Jack Abramoff lobbying inquiry.
Still, the ghosts of the Street investigation weren’t exorcised until this year, when Rep. Chaka Fattah was convicted on multiple RICO charges following an investigation which lasted more than six years.
Major public corruption cases are a damned-if-you-do, damned-if- you-don’t endeavor. If you’ve been paying attention to current events of late, you know that these investigations have remained highly politicized on both sides of the aisle, making it hard to present evidence of wrongdoing in a highly charged environment. On the right side of the aisle, the FBI and DOJ have been criticized for not prosecuting Hillary Clinton. On the left side of the aisle, the same agencies have been accused of racism and persecution in successfully making large profile corruption cases on African-American politicians like Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, and others. These are the reasons why both the FBI and US Attorneys are extremely careful, using extremely high solvability factors and gathering a great deal of evidence when public corruption cases are prosecuted.
This article was not written to “shake pom-poms” for the FBI. It was written because the current state of public discourse has become so corroded that almost every public integrity case is maligned and questioned in an attempt to spin public opinion away from this simple fact:
If the FBI serves a search warrant in a public integrity case, a grand jury is convened, and a federal prosecution of a public official is brought; there is probably significant evidence that the public official in question broke the law…in a manner serious enough to warrant some extremely valuable man-hours.
Meanwhile in Philadelphia, just as the Democratic National Convention and World Meeting of Families were being held, there has been an explosion in high-profile public corruption indictments and convictions. While there has been little national attention to this, Philadelphia has shown a disturbing culture of corruption and the FBI and US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania has been the only consistent enforcer of corruption in the region. But in the current political climate, can the FBI, or any agency tasked with rooting out corruption, provide oversight and restore honor to the business of public service.
A. Benjamin Mannes is a national subject matter expert in public safety. He serves as a member of the Peirce College Criminal Justice Studies Advisory Board in Philadelphia and is a Governor on the Executive Board of InfraGard, the FBI-coordinated public-private partnership for critical infrastructure protection. Follow him on Twitter @PublicSafetySME
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