Low Crimes and Misdemeanors

The possibility of high crimes and misdemeanors has received lots of attention of late, given the investigations of President Clinton, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros and others. But what about misconduct at lower levels of government? The annual report to Congress by the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section (PIS) is instructive.

The report describes the 48 cases, of 1,051 public corruption cases nationwide, that the PIS prosecuted in 1995. Most of the crimes are strikingly unspectacular. Punishments are accordingly minor: Parole, community service, fines, restitution of pilfered goods and funds, and resignation were all common. Jail time and home confinement were less so, occurring in about a third of cases. Even then, half those jailed or confined got less than a year.

What follows is a rough typology of the kinds of crimes for which corrupt public officials--and citizens who try to corrupt them--are commonly prosecuted by PIS.

Dangerous liaisons. Clinton and Cisneros aren't the only ones who've gotten into hot water over women. Consider Richard N. Ashby, a U.S. Customs Service resident agent, convicted of "paying [$17,000 in] government funds to his wife as a confidential informant." This represented a conflict of interest, and he received two years' probation and a $500 fine. In contrast, William D. Lanning, a program manager with the Defense Intelligence Agency, was convicted of conspiracy to defraud the government of $400,000. He induced a defense contracting firm to hire his girlfriend as a consultant and travel companion for $500 a day, even though she had less than a high school education and "no military or technical experience." Lanning was ordered to make restitution and sentenced to three years in jail.

Garden-variety graft. Include Leonidas P. Emerson's deeds in the category of petty but costly crimes: An Agriculture Department senior manager, he admitted in a plea agreement that he had made "extensive personal use of long-distance telephone service provided by USDA" while he was based in Ecuador and Peru. He resigned from office and reimbursed the department $18,932. Peter L. Collins, an intelligence analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, was convicted in 1993 of using a "computer system and government photocopiers to surreptitiously do unauthorized work related to his personal activities." He was apparently running "his amateur ballroom dance association" from the defense office. His conviction was upheld on appeal. He received one year's probation.

Expense reports. Peter R. Davis, an adviser to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, pled guilty to "theft by false pretenses" after requesting reimbursements "for a house which he fraudulently claimed was being used primarily as an office for ... business." In fact, his son lived in the house, which was 400 miles away. He got a year of unsupervised probation, was fined $3,000 and was ordered to pay $4,280 restitution. Also guilty was William Howard Evans of Georgia, who falsely claimed to own a mobile home and "applied for government rent subsidies to be paid him on behalf of a purported tenant." He was trying to cheat HUD of some $4,000.

Embezzlement. Loibwij K. Kabua, an area supervisor with the Agriculture Department in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, pled guilty to embezzling $15,600 from the Farmers Home Administration (FHA; now called the Rural Housing Service) over a two-year period. A Marshall Islands citizen, Kabua fraudulently endorsed and cashed FHA checks intended to help 16 other citizens restore their homes following "intense weather damage." For this, he was sentenced to five months in prison, three in home detention and three years of supervised release--and was ordered to make restitution.

Bribery. Phillip McLaughlin, a former assistant vice president of the Bank of New England, was sentenced to two months in prison, plus a fine and probation, for accepting $40,000 in payoffs to influence the awards of FDIC-related contracts. While under contract from the FDIC to liquidate the bank's assets, McLaughlin hired and took kickbacks from employees of towing and yachting companies.

Varying the theme are those who get money by promising to influence a third party's decision, but who then pocket the funds and do nothing. Cleveland attorney Sanford I. Atkin was convicted on 28 felony counts for a "rainmaking" scheme in which he accepted $550,000 from international pornographer Reuben Sturman on the promise of bribing the federal judge overseeing Sturman's criminal tax trial. There was no evidence that the judge received money or was corrupted; Atkin was sentenced to a $12,500 fine and more than five years in jail.

Similarly, Vincent B. Lambert, a private citizen, got nearly two years on obstruction of justice charges stemming from a scheme in which he told a prison inmate awaiting sentencing on drug charges that, for $50,000, Lambert could persuade an assistant U.S. attorney to go easy on the inmate. The inmate paid up, but Lambert later admitted "the entire scheme was a scam, and he had not contacted anyone in the U.S. Attorney's Office."

It's hard to tell from Justice statistics, said department spokesman John Russell, whether political corruption has significantly increased since Watergate. What is clear is that the vast majority of those whom the PIS and U.S. attorneys prosecute as "corrupt public officials" are unelected career government employees--not elected officials.

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