Political Corruption

By June 13, 2013November 7th, 2020Uncategorized

As the lines of authority with the government erode, so too do traditional authority structures . . . eventually all that is left to hold society together is that someday it may be your day to get yours.” — Nuhu Ribadu, Nigeria 1

Corruption is the abuse of public office for private or political gain. Electoral corruption is interference with the election process to influence its outcome.


Recognition of underlying rights:

– Right to sovereignty (“the people own the government”)
– Right to equality

– Right to freedom of information

Rights and election corruption:

– Right to choose representation

– Right to honest services

Resisting corruption is part of exercising our power to self-govern. Deterrence begins with reducing social tolerance for corruption. Anywhere corruption exists — and corruption can be found in every country — look for corruption’s little brother, election fraud. Knowing what corruption looks like educates us about safeguards, motivating us to use and protect them. The two most important safeguards for reducing corruption are transparency and enforcement.


Democracies are proliferating through globalization to such an extent that they are no longer just “democracies,” but a range of democratic variations. As comparisons emerge showing how different safeguards work, new approaches towards government transparency are emerging.

At the same time, globalization is expanding the influence of money and crime on politics. Booming democracy, multinational money and transnational crime now interact on an unprecedented scale. Fresh approaches to abuse of power show up regularly, with technology offering speedy new ideas for all.

To reduce electoral fraud, independent, or at least “bipartisan” monitors have traditionally scrutinized elections; however, traditional observation methods don’t address new trends in election administration, which can’t be seen with average, or even reasonably trained human skills. Rapidly changing risks with the new opaque and privately administered election technologies are poorly understood by conventional election monitoring teams. Non-transparent processes are typically rationalized citing convenience and substituting the word “trust” for “transparency.” In fact, a whole new vocabulary is emerging: “confidence” instead of legitimacy; “convenient” rather than “in public”; “modern” without using any of the spectacular new transparency technologies; “verified by experts” rather than “in public.”

There is some good news. Stepped-up demands for freedom of information help citizens make use of open meetings and public records to combat corruption, though requests are also often denied or obstructed. Newly energized citizen watchdog efforts are accompanied by public tracking and reporting web sites, live mobile device feeds, Skype, online video, and increased use of freedom of information rights. Groups like Transparency International now have chapters in some of the most repressive areas in the world.

In India, the Philippines, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, the USA, and many other parts of the world citizens have begun asking crucial questions about whether modern elections offer public transparency. Citizen groups have been trying to authenticate reported election results, mostly discovering they cannot, and now are documenting lack of transparency. (You can videotape someone refusing to ask a question; you can photograph a closed door; you can distribute copies of refused freedom of information requests. Online video sites like YouTube, combined with social networking and live streaming and video cell phones provide new ways to show violations of electoral safeguards, sometimes catching election tampering in real time.)2


Politics, money and crime persistently find ways to compete and conjoin in search of power. Corruption — improper interaction of politics with money or crime — is contagious, creating an eroded sense of what’s “normal.” Where there is corruption in any form, electoral corruption is more likely. Corruption merits permanent public vigilance, but must never be considered acceptably normal.

Election administration follows rules designed to safeguard against electoral corruption. In any system, making rules alone does not change behavior. You don’t eliminate crime by passing a law against it. Even heavy-handed enforcement of rules doesn’t eliminate problems. All participants need a good understanding of problems to understand why the safeguards work. Education and mobilization of social opinion is crucial to improving good governance.

To paraphrase investigative journalist Lincoln Steffens, who specialized in exposing municipal corruption in America: Democracy with us may be impossible and corruption inevitable, but we have demonstrated beyond doubt that we can stand the truth; that there is pride in the character of citizenship; and that this pride may be a power in the land.

If we own our government, part of this pride of ownership is keeping it clean.

Vigilance in a state of ignorance doesn’t work. Corruption will pass you right by, proclaiming its goodness — there’s always a claimed benefit for a clandestine act, if anyone sees the act. Corruption usually has a back story: Someone had some land and a side deal for its government purchase at inflated cost; someone wanted to protect someone else; an industry wants to protect, or increase, its profits; one ethnic group wants to expand its turf relative to another; someone wants to install an ideology so badly they think ends justify means.

You can watchdog elections in the forward order (starting with public controversy, scrutinizing related upcoming elections for fraud); or backwards (starting with election irregularities, working backwards to see who benefits). It can be especially interesting to start from a corruption indictment, then work backwards to examine the election which facilitated opportunity.

As you learn more about common mechanics for corruption, you will recognize, and even anticipate where it is most likely to happen. Simply by linking election vigilance to related opportunities for corruption, you will improve your chances to catch and report problems.


We can’t take a close look at corruption without returning to questions of equality: While a free society does not require equality of assets, it does require political equality in the sense that: (a) Any person can seek elected office; (b) No person, or entity, has a right to become a “supervoter” exerting full control over a bloc of voters, nor to render a bloc of voters inconsequential through replacing voter control altogether (the “one person = one vote” principle); (c) No one can displace the public oversight, or authentication process. The public has a right to be able to ascertain what is true, for if denied that right, political rulers can simply control information, proclaiming everything they say to be “true.”

A democratic society expands its risk for corruption when political influence becomes asymmetrical, when a singular entity, like a multinational corporation, gains disproportionate political access. 3

An overly narrow definition of corruption, limiting it only to an act violating a law, would allow “elimination” of corruption simply by finding a group of good ol’ boys willing to get together to change the rules. The broader context for corruption, then, has to take into account whether real, meaningful control has been transferred from the sovereign public to a small set of insiders who control the game. Such a scenario is a corruption of the democratic process, whether or not it breaks a law.

Aristotle faulted rulers, describing their transition into oligarchy, as “distributing the public property contrary to right proportion; and giving either all that is good, or the greatest share, to themselves; and the offices to the same persons always, making wealth their idol.” 4

But is what Aristotle describes corruption, or just bad governance, or is it an expression of the freedom of an unchecked market?

It is corruption, if it appropriates property gained through extortion of taxes from a non-consenting population. It is corruption if it uses public tax money to acquire or transfer property in violation of any laws. It is corruption if a public position was acquired through fraud. It is corruption if those holding office arrange to control placement into public positions of only those persons they choose, contrary to or absent from public choice. It is also corruption if those not holding office, for example, a corporate or a criminal enterprise, overrides the public will to place persons of their choice into office, or controls the enactment of laws through public officials serving as intermediaries.

To expand this last area, and beginning with the most sobering scenario, let’s look at the issue of public corruption when it intersects with organized crime. This is important because it relates directly to the need for full transparency in elections and political finance. As Kevin Casas-Zamora, editor of an important book about crime and political funding (see NOTES), says of the reality of crime in politics, and its genuine risk:

“This is no Hollywood script.”

It’s real, and any removal of full transparency can usher crime right into the statehouse.

Knowledge is power, and those who possess it have the power to rule. Perhaps that is why an obsession with secrecy persists across the world.” — Jeremy Pope, the first managing director of Transparency International.5

Crime and Politics

In the US during the 1960s, an estimated 15 percent of all political money had its origin in criminal enterprise. In a study comparing names of reported political donors with the names on the congressional organized crime investigation by the United States Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, popularly known as the Kefauver Committee, investigators found a match rate of over two percent — that is, two percent of all political donors appear to have had ties to organized crime.6

In his meticulously sourced book, Alexander Heard describes “revelations so startling they are often discounted as atypically melodramatic.” He cites involvement of underworld figures Frank Costello, Joe Adonis, and the murdered Charles Binaggio in political party organizations.7

According to Donatella Della Porta and Alberto Vannucci, writing about crime and politics in Italy, “The intersection where politicans and criminals meet is a subterranean market. The goods exchanged in this market are, on the one hand, public decisions (ranging from single administrative acts to general laws and regulations, favorable sentences and judicial acts, omission of controls, information, and political protection) and, on the other hand, protection from violence and intimidation, electoral support and votes, bribes, and financial contributions.”8

Though winning Argentinean presidential candidate Eduardo Duhalde seems to have sidestepped the taint, his campaign disputedly received some $1.4 million in funds from the owner of a money laundromat for the Juarez cartel.9

In 2008, following the assassination of Sebastian Forza, a donor to the successful campaign of Argentinean president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, ties were found between the dead donor, drug cartels, and a scheme for medicine adulteration and robbery involving a government health service.10

Money from criminal enterprise is certainly swamped by funding from vested interests (such as investment banking firms, oil companies, property development syndicates, health and pharmaceutical industries). But corporate influences, while potentially corrupt and certainly asymmetric in power as compared with ordinary citizens, at least offer some means to public control through transparency and enforcement. Theoretically, an elected official at least has the option of choosing not to acquiesce to vested interest pressure.

Elected leaders beholden to organized crime produce a much greater danger because criminal enterprise, by its very definition, does not follow the law. These politicians face coercion of a more forceful kind. Capture of public office by crime strives not so much to shape the law, but to hollow it out, or prevent it from being enforced at all, which can result in collapse of a local, regional, or national government.

When one begins with an understanding of the risk posed by allowing criminal enterprise to capture political influence without discovery, it is undeniably clear that full transparency for all aspects of elections and political finance is a crucial safeguard for viable democracy. Moving from illicit influence to asymmetric influence (by legitimate entities), the same transparency measures can offer a way for the public to detect when asymmetric power turns into corruption.

Corruption and economics

I don’t want to hear the argument that it has a good side, oiling the wheels of commerce and enabling rich people to dole out money to poor people. That’s like arguing that HIV/AIDS has a good side, promoting research.” — Raymond Baker 11

The economics profession is at last beginning to take a hard look at how corruption damages economic performance, with new empirical research documenting corruption’s detrimental effect.12

Globalization has caused public officials to want to reform laws and infrastructure so they can compete effectively for growing international capital flows. Without transparent and accountable government agencies, without consistent law enforcement to protect property, without enforcement of regulations, investors find locations less attractive.

Political corruption impedes economic development.

– Worsens poverty and inequality
– Reduces revenues available for infrastructure, like roads and public safety
– Damages health and education services
– Discourages foreign investment
– Slows creation of new enterprises

– Increases debt burdens

10 Kinds of Corrupt Practices

– illegal expenditures (including vote buying);
– funding from infamous sources;
– selling appointments, honors, or access to information;
– abuse of state resources;
– use of bribes or illicit commissions to pay for campaigns;
– demanding contributions from public servants;
– activities in violation of political finance regulations;
– political contributions made in return for favors, contracts, or policy changes;
– extortion of private sector actors by incumbents;

– purposefully limiting access to funding by opposition parties.13

The role of transparency to reduce corruption

Transparency and enforcement are the most effective mitigations against corruption. The same principles apply to election corruption: Secrecy breeds election fraud.

When regulations are nontransparent or are not easily available to the public, it creates an environment conducive to corruption.14 Along these lines, researchers point to problems in US election transparency.15 Each state follows different election laws, sometimes posting election statutes online, sometimes not. Far more difficult to come by are the voluminous election administration rules, equally binding but very difficult to find. Opaque rules make public oversight very difficult. Complex rules make it easier to hide corrupt practices.

A growing role has been played by nongovernmental organizations, such as Transparency International, in publicizing the problems of corruption and in trying to create anticorruption movements in many countries.” 16

Foremost among anti-corruption organizations is Transparency International (TI), which has grown to establish chapters throughout the world. Founded by a former World Bank staff member, TI is now highly visible; its annually published Corruption Perception Index has become an influential indicator for assessing each nation’s economic desirability, and more important, for evaluating the state of freedom throughout the world.17


Election transparency: Election transparency is the public ability to see and verify each essential step in elections, the essential steps being: (1) who can vote (voter list), (2) who did vote (poll list, or participating voter list), (3) counting of the vote, and (4) chain of custody. Reasons for transparency with sources: http://blackboxvoting.org/transparency/
All Black Box Voting stories related to election transparency: http://blackboxvoting.org/category/election-transparency/


  1. Nuhu Ribadu, former Executive Chairman of Nigeria’s Economic and Crimes Commission (EFCC), in testimony to the Financial Services Committee of the US House of Representatives on May 19, 2009, as reported by Vogl, Frank: Waging War on Corruption: Inside the Movement Fighting the Abuse of Power. US: Rowman & Littlefield (2012) ISBN 978-1-4422-1852-9
  2. Video of compromised ballot chain of custody prior to hand recount of ballots counted by centrally programmed Diebold voting machines, presidential primary 2008: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=txoLlfrBENk
  3. As Jeff Connaughton points out, describing an imbalance of political power in the lawmaking process which he contends caused both parties to refuse to hold Wall Street to account for its continuing role in a chain of events that cause an economic implosion, and failure of political leaders to bring about meaningful reforms: “The problem arises when the advocacy is asymmetrical — that is, when Corporate America or Wall Street lines up on one side of an issue, and no one (or only a grossly outnumbered, outgunned, and out-organized few) lines up on the other. … Only the corporate teams — which are extremely well paid, specially trained, and refreshed with substitutions — never waver or become fatigued.” See: Connaughton, Jeff, The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins. US, Westport CT: Prospecta Press. ISBN978-1-935212-97-3
  4. Aristotle, Ethics, Book VIII. Public Domain Books
  5. See Vogl, Frank, Waging War on Corruption; Inside the Movement Fighting the Abuse of Power. USA/UK: Rowman & Littlefield: 2012 ISBN 978-1-4422-1852-9 for a history of the global transparency movement, including essential background and reporting on Transparency International and its courageous leaders.
  6. Heard, Alexander: The Costs of Democracy (Chapter 6, ‘Special Sources’; “Underworld Money and Politics” pp. 154-168), US: University of North Carolina Press, (1960) ISBN 978-0807807811
  7. ibid: “For a time in the 1940’s the New York County Democratic organization, Tammany Hall, lay under the influence of a leading underworld figure, Frank Costello. In neighboring Kings County (Brooklyn), another underworld figure, Joe Adonis, exercised great influence within the Democratic organization. In Missouri, the role of mobster elements in that state’s politics was dramatized by the murder in 1950 of Charles Binaggio. Mr. Binaggio was a central figure in Kansas City gambling circles, the leader of the First Ward Democratic Club in that city, and acknowledged to be one of the state’s important political figures. Allegedly he was murdered because he failed to deliver the political influence his underworld associates thought they were buying by financing his political activities. Recurringly in other communities, large and small, evidence has erupted demonstrating linkages between politics and crime — in Phoenix City, Alabama; in Hot Springs, Arkansas; in Erie, Pennsylvania; in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; and elsewhere, including the world symbol of urban lawlessness, Chicago.”
  8. Donatella Della Porta and Alberto Vannucci “Italy: the Godfather’s Party” Casas-Zamora, Kevin (ed.): Dangerous Liaisons: Organized Crime and Political Finance in Latin America and Beyond. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press 2013 ISBN 978-0-8157-2529-9
  9. “In February 2001, La Nacion reported that Interpol had found documents in Mexico that proved that the Juarez cartel had contributed to the Duhalde-Ortega presidential campaign in 1999.” The money was laundered by the cartel via New York’s Citibank, and from there went to Mercado Abierto, an Argentinean financial firm owned by Aldo Ducler, chief adviser to vice presidential candidate Palito Ortega. Through Ducler, a $1 million contribution to the presidential campaign was made, followed by a $400,000 contribution for the purchase of a campaign vehicle. See: Delia M. Ferreira Rubio, “Argentina: Two Cases” Casas-Zamora, Kevin (ed.): Dangerous Liaisons: Organized Crime and Political Finance in Latin America and Beyond. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press 2013 ISBN 978-0-8157-2529-9
  10. ibid.; The deceased Forza was tied to a stolen and adulterated medicine scheme in which illicit medicine was trafficked into Argentina to be sold to the government through the agency headed by one of the Kirchner alliance’s main fundraisers, Hector Capaccioli, who headed the public health ministry; the medicine was administered to terminal cancer and HIV patients. As the investigation proceeded, more Kirchner donors were investigated, some swearing they had not made any contribution but had sold or given checks to create a false appearance that donations came from them; apparently, the phony activity covered up contributions of clandestine origin. If the money actually came from unspeakable sources, how did the money really make its way to the campaign? Perhaps through suitcase-gate; $800,000 in undeclared cash, allegedly headed for the Kirchner campaign, was discovered hidden in the suitcase of one Antonini Wilson, who entered Argentina on a flight allegedly authorized by two former members of President Nestor Kirchner’s administration. See also, “The Antonini Wilson Case: Former PDVSA Executive’s Deposition Postponed”, Anti money laundering News (Feb. 27, 2008) http://antimoneylaundering.us/news_det.php?id=16
  11. Baker, Raymond W., Capitalism’s Achilles Heel: Dirty Money and How to Renew the Free-Market System (pg. 51). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005 ISBN 978-0-471-64488-0
  12. In particular, studies demonstrate how weak and poorly run institutions fall prey to vested interests which, in effect “capture the state” and then use their power to preserve monopolies and extract rent, hinder competition, and inhibit economic reform. Corruption is equally damaging when those in positions of authority exploit their public trust to achieve personal gain. Such practices not only impose additional taxes on the economy, they also undermine the rule of law, which is essential to the proper functioning of a market economy.” Gupta, Sanjeev and Abed, George T.: Governance, Corruption, and Economic Performance (Foreword), Washington DC, US: International Monetary Fund (09/24/2002) ISBN 978-146230-6-855
  13. Walecki, Marcin. “Political Money and Corruption” (pg 20); In Global Corruption Report: Special Focus — Political Corruption, edited by Transparency International. London: Pluto — Transparency International. (2004)
  14. See Gupta, Sanjeev and Abed, George T.: Governance, Corruption, and Economic Performance (Foreword), Washington DC, US: International Monetary Fund (09/24/2002) ISBN 978-146230-6-855 for more on the importance of transparent administrative rules.
  15. “Election law information for each state should be readily available online. It is difficult to know whether election fraud or problems have occurred if a jurisdiction’s laws and regulations are not accessible to the public. Although many states have put their election codes online, in some it is very difficult to locate election law information, especially regulatory and administrative information intended to guide local election officials. Easy access to this legal information provides transparency by allowing everyone to understand the rules of the game.” See: Hall, Thad E. and Wang, Tova Andrea, International Principles for Election Integrity, in Alvarez, R. Michael; Hall, Thad E.; and Hyde, Susan D. (eds.), Election Fraud: Detecting and Deterring Electoral Manipulation. Washington D.C., US: Brookings Institution Press: 2008 ISBN 978-0-8157-0138-5
  16. Gupta, Sanjeev and Abed, George T.: Governance, Corruption, and Economic Performance (Foreword), Washington DC, US: International Monetary Fund (09/24/2002) ISBN 978-146230-6-855
  17. Vogl, Frank, Waging War on Corruption; Inside the Movement Fighting the Abuse of Power. USA/UK: Rowman & Littlefield: 2012 ISBN 978-1-4422-1852-9



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