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How the nation can fight corruption

How the nation can fight corruption
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An elected official takes a Rolex watch and thousands of dollars in free catering from businesses seeking favors from the state. A high ranking federal official accepts luggage, tickets to sporting events, scholarships for a girlfriend, and other gifts worth about $35,000. Two state officials closed all but one lane on a bridge into New York during rush hour as retaliation against a politician who did not back the governor.

Most citizens would rightly consider these unacceptable acts of public corruption. Surely these abuses of trust from citizens would bring about swift punishment, but not according to the Supreme Court. In each case, and in many other examples, the conviction was overturned.

Take the most recent public corruption case. Last month, the Supreme Court overturned those convictions in the Bridgegate scandal. In doing so, the justices wrote that “the evidence the jury heard no doubt shows wrongdoing” of deception, corruption, abuse of power but “the federal fraud statutes at issue do not criminalize all such conduct.”

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So how is this possible? While the Supreme Court found these acts of corruption legal, it has suggested that federal fraud laws could prohibit “schemes that defraud citizens of their intangible rights to honesty and impartial government.” But that is not what the current laws say, leaving prosecutors without the tools to successfully bring charges.

Each of these cases unleashed a domino effect, resulting in an often swift series of blows that have helped erode our statutes against corruption in the United States. It has made it more difficult to protect the public from officials who violate their trust. But while these Supreme Court decisions may have overlooked the spirit of why such laws exist in the first place, the failure of the laws ultimately rests on the legislative branch.

Congress has never bothered to amend the fraud statute or any of the other public corruption laws that allowed such violations of public trust. But we are not defenseless as a nation. We do not have to accept acts of corruption that occur “for no reason other than political payback” that prevent an ambulance from reaching a victim of a heart attack.

One possible solution, the Public Corruption Prosecution Improvements Act, was originally sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy and Senator John Cornyn, was repeatedly introduced and even passed the upper chamber. The bill would plug many of the holes uncovered by the Supreme Court, however, it has not been reintroduced since the 112th Congress.

It is unconscionable that the corruption laws in this country have been allowed to be eroded with impunity, in full view of the American people. This further highlights the broken status quo that fuels apathy, distrust, and rightful anger among so many across the United States.

It is unacceptable for many members of Congress to simply shrug their shoulders. Congress has a constitutional role to provide for the general welfare of our democracy. Holding our public officials accountable for violating public trust is integral to doing this. It is time to seize on the bipartisan recognition of and outrage over these problems.

Meredith McGehee serves as the executive director of Issue One, and Danielle Caputo serves as the legislative affairs counsel of Issue One.