An anticorruption army of one

When checks on government fail to stem corruption, individuals can make a difference.

Thanks to an alert bank clerk in Bowie, Md., Americans have been reminded they can fight government corruption just by acting responsibly in their jobs and as citizens. The employee's suspicions led to a federal probe that is uncovering the largest-ever theft of city money in Washington, DC.

Last week, federal agents announced that workers in the city tax office allegedly stole $20 million by making out refund checks to bogus companies and depositing them in private accounts.

But the nation's capital city hardly stands alone in the swamp of local and state corruption.

Also last week, New York's former police commissioner Bernard Kerik was indicted on federal corruption charges. The same week, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan began serving a sentence of more than six years, also for corruption. In Alaska, a federal probe of oil money paid to state lawmakers continues to unfold and snare.

And those are just a few headlines about low ethics in high places.

As ancient as the counsel about corruption (the Bible warns specifically about bribing) is the depth of corruption's cost to society. The most obvious cost is waste. The stolen funds from the DC Treasury could have paid for 40 firetrucks or 10 Metro subway cars to ease rushhour congestion.

People who study corruption maintain it also costs jobs. A 2004 study at the University of Connecticut – a state that has seen a string of tarnished public officials in the past decade – found it creates uncertainty for business and thus stunts job growth, to a greater degree than even high taxes do.

The same was found for Louisiana, a state notorious for greased palms. Out-of-state companies say cleaning up corruption is the second most important thing Louisiana can do to lure them to the state – after improving schools but before cutting taxes.

Then there's the glue that holds the governing and the governed together: trust. Just when many Americans might be wondering whether government should play a greater role in finding solutions to weak bridges, unaffordable healthcare, and fossil-fuel energy, can they trust it?

In recent decades, actually, new accounting and audit standards for state and local governments have markedly improved the reliability of government financial reports. Breaches of ethics have brought stricter ethics guidelines (in New Jersey, a new ethics code forbids even a free cup of coffee) – but such guidelines have teeth only if they are enforced.

Greater transparency and oversight, as well as law enforcement's commitment to set up stings and launch investigations, are all ways to keep corruption in check. But what happens when these systems fail or are underfunded? The alleged leader of the DC check-writing scheme realized no one was watching her.

That's when controls need to be tightened, but also individuals can remember their role. Fellow office workers need to speak up when they suspect wrongdoing, just as the bank employee did. And if they don't report it, voters will eventually catch up with them and their bosses. Public servants who forget they are there to serve, can themselves be served a warrant – or a pink slip come election time.

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