In December, Transparency International, a global anti-corruption nonprofit and Project On Government Oversight strategic partner, released its new report comparing public perceptions of corruption in the United States from 2016 to 2017. The survey found that 68 percent of Americans believe the government is doing a bad job fighting corruption. Despite President Trump’s promises to curb corruption, 33 percent of the public believes that most government officials abuse power for personal gain.
Danielle Brian, POGO’s executive director, spoke on a panel of government accountability experts about the report’s findings. At the discussion, she worried that the Trump administration is “stretching ethical norms to the breaking point.” Many ethics norms, like releasing tax returns and establishing blind trusts, aren’t established in enforceable laws.
Over the last year, the Trump administration has not abided by many of these norms and has created severe conflicts of interest. According to Brian, the President and his family’s precedent-breaking decision to maintain their business interests “defies the notion that ethics standards apply to them at all.” While the survey doesn’t ask people why they believe corruption has increased, these weakening ethical norms may have helped heighten public fears about American corruption. In 2016, around 33 percent of respondents to Transparency International’s survey believed that levels of public corruption had risen in the last 12 months. Now, that number has jumped to 58 percent.
At the panel discussion, Brian and other government accountability experts talked about reasons behind these trends and potential solutions. Their discussion focused on closing the revolving door, increasing whistleblower protections, and taking action against both illegal and legal corruption.
Revolving Door Leads to Corruption
According to Transparency International, 44 percent of Americans “believe that corruption is pervasive in the White House.” But public concerns about government malfeasance do not stop at the White House: around 38 percent of Americans believe most Members of Congress are corrupt, too.
At the panel, Brian and other experts labeled the corrupting influence of the revolving door between the government and private sector as one of the most serious legal corruption issues in American politics.
When private sector employees become public servants entrusted with policymaking, it increases the risk that they could use their position for personal or private gain, including favoring or giving unequal access or an unfair advantage to their former employers. Those risks increase if the official plans to return to the private sector. Many large industries take advantage of the government’s weak ethics infrastructure by financially incentivizing their employees to work for the government to influence public policy.
President Trump has repeatedly promised to “drain the swamp” of corruption. But his definition of corruption doesn’t seem to include industry lobbyists entering government jobs, an important part of the revolving door. While the Trump administration’s ethics pledge strengthened some ethics bans, it importantly weakened provisions of the Obama administration’s regulations that prevented lobbyists from working for the agency they lobbied for, according to The New York Times. Obama’s lobby ban prevented people from going to an agency that they had lobbied. Trump’s ban allows them to work in the administration, but only if they don’t work on the same issues they lobbied on previously. Also disappointingly, President Trump didn’t fulfill his campaign promise to expand the definition of “lobbyist” to include the consultants and advisors that often act as de-facto lobbyists.
According to The Washington Times, industry lobbyists have seen their influence increase under the Trump Administration, not decrease.
Fear of Retaliation
Fighting corruption requires the government to take whistleblower protections seriously. According to the Transparency International study, 20 percent of Americans believe that reporting corruption is the most effective way to fix it. Yet weak whistleblower protections for government employees and contractors risk dissuading them from reporting corruption. Brian points out that “leaker” and “whistleblower” aren’t synonymous, but the Attorney General’s “sloppy” language conflating the two in press conferences has created a “chilling effect” for whistleblowers.
The inadequate patchwork of existing whistleblower protections will continue to threaten people who have witnessed wrongdoing in the government unless Congress legislates ironclad safeguards. Over the last year, the number of respondents to Transparency International’s survey citing “fear of retaliation” as the main reason not to report corruption jumped from 31 to 55 percent. To help protect whistleblowers, in 2012 Congress passed the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, but many agencies openly flout the Act. Contrary to the law’s provisions, agencies frequently require their employees to sign nondisclosure agreements that make no exception for whistleblowing. According to Senator Chuck Grassley’s office (R-IA), in a study of 15 agencies, only one fully complied with the law’s anti-gag provisions.
Moreover, the Act doesn’t go far enough. In our 2017 Baker’s Dozen Report we provided to Congress recommendations on how to better protect whistleblowers.
For instance, Congress needs to ensure federal whistleblowers have access to jury trials to help them recover after retaliation. Federal whistleblowers are the only major section of the workforce lacking this fundamental protection. Contractors and federal employees in the intelligence sector have even fewer protections. Congress must act to protect Intelligence Community contractors from retaliation when they disclose to a supervisor, Member of Congress, or an Inspector General. Currently, they have no protection from professional retaliation.
Inaction on Corruption
Transparency International also found that 16 percent of Americans said they wouldn’t report corruption, because they believe nothing would be done. To help address this fear, Inspectors General must have the independence and resources to investigate and resolve problems brought to their attention. Over 14 agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, Department of the Interior, and Department of Defense, have no appointed Inspector General. Nine federal agencies haven’t had an Inspector General for over a year. Worse yet, agencies often just ignore IG recommendations. Across the government, agencies have ignored over 17,000 IG recommendations, disproportionally affecting agencies with vacant inspector general positions.
In the United States, corruption is too often absolutely legal. Successive Supreme Court decisions, like Skilling v. United States and U.S. v. Sun-Diamond Growers of California, markedly limited the scope of anti-corruption laws, according to POGO’s Nick Schwellenbach. These cases and others raised the legal bar necessary to prosecute public officials who abuse their influence to help campaign donors, and have decreased public corruption prosecutions over the last two decades. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, since 1995 “criminal official corruption prosecutions” have dropped 38.1 percent. (Note: The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse’s co-director David Burnham is a POGO board member).
One recent example is the case of Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who is accused of trying to change Medicare policy to financially benefit a wealthy contributor who defrauded Medicare of millions of dollars. Despite this corrupt behavior, the jury could not unanimously decide that Senator Menendez actually broke any existing law—a clear indication that Congress needs to update anti-corruption laws.
We need enforceable laws to end both legal and illegal forms of corruption, which will go a long way towards restoring public confidence in government. And it needs to happen now, before it is too late.