Corruption crackdown

The FBI has sharpened its focus on public graft.

In Lynchburg, Va., mayor Carl Hutcherson on May 2 was convicted, among other crimes, of stealing cash from Social Security disability recipients to pay for a stereo, a mattress, and cable television.

In Oklahoma City, three US Army soldiers on April 25 pleaded guilty to taking bribes to transport cocaine while in uniform - bringing to 13 the number of current or former military personnel ensnared by the FBI undercover investigation Operation Tarnish Star.

In West Palm Beach, Fla., city commissioner Raymond Liberti on May 8 was charged with fraud in federal court after allegedly harassing two local massage parlors in return for a $2,000 TAG Heuer watch and $66,000 in cash.

Jack Abramoff, you're not alone. Federal corruption cases are on the upswing all across America, as the FBI devotes more resources to pursuing those who abuse the public trust.

Over the past two years, FBI investigations have led to corruption convictions for more than 1,000 government employees, according to bureau figures. Corruption indictments are up 40 percent.

At times, critics say, this push has gone too far - witness the current legal standoff over documents seized by agents from Rep. William Jefferson's office. But other experts applaud the attempt to curb bribery and other misdeeds - especially in Washington, nexus of money, lobbyists, and power.

"I think it's great," says Melanie Sloan, former federal prosecutor who now heads Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). "It's overdue."

The FBI's latest strategic plan lists "combat public corruption on all levels" as the bureau's highest-ranking criminal priority, ahead of such things as fighting transnational crime organizations (read "the Mafia") and white-collar crime.

Over the past 18 months, some 200 agents have been added to the 400 already working on public corruption cases, according to FBI data.

This new emphasis is due to the fact that "public corruption is different than other crimes," said FBI director Robert Mueller in a May 11 speech in San Diego. "It does not just strike at the heart of good government - it can strike at the security of our communities and our nation."

A recent Arizona-based investigation found serious corruption along the US southern border, noted Mr. Mueller. Fifty current and former soldiers and law-enforcement officers pleaded guilty to accepting cash to smuggle drugs and illegal immigrants into the US from Mexico.

"For the right price, would they ... help terrorist operatives cross the border?" said the FBI director.

Not that the stakes are always so high. A recent election fraud case in West Virginia centered around the trading of votes for gravel, which the voters in question needed for their gravel roads, said James "Chip" Burrus, assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division, at an April press conference.

The FBI and federal prosecutors have broken some big corruption cases outside of Washington. Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, for instance, was convicted of a pattern of fraud while in office.

Abramoff, for one, has admitted to conspiring to bribe public officials, plus mail fraud and tax evasion, as a result of one of the widest-ranging such probes in recent history. So far, the Abramoff investigation has ensnared three former congressional aides - the latest being Neil Volz, an ex-lobbyist and ex-aide to Rep. Bob Ney (R) of Ohio, who pleaded guilty to fraud May 8.

In addition, former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R) of California last year admitted taking $2.4 million in return for helping defense firms get Pentagon contracts. The Cunningham case is still threatening to engulf others, too, such as a former high CIA official named Kyle "Dusty" Foggo. Mr. Foggo was a friend of an unindicted co-conspirator who figured in Cunningham's schemes, and agents searched Foggo's Langley, Virginia office on May 12.

Then there's Rep. Jefferson (D) of Louisiana. The FBI says it has a videotape of him accepting $100,000 in bribes, and that it found $90,000 of that cash stuffed in his home freezer. Last week, a former Jefferson aide, Brett Pfeffer, was sentenced to eight years in prison for aiding and abetting the bribery of a public official.

The current spate of bribery investigations involving Congress is "extraordinary," notes John Fortier, a research fellow and governance expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

Given President Clinton's own legal problems while in office, his administration wasn't interested in allowing the FBI to go after corruption in the GOP- controlled Congress, she added. But now, "political gloves are off," says Sloan.

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