Comparing Presidents, Public Corruption

Let’s look at the change in federal public officials (appointed and elected) charged and/or convicted with corruption. I found data going back to 1980… 1986 to 2005 from the Report to Congress on the Activities and Operations of the Public Integrity Section for 2005, and for years from 1980 to 199 from the 1999 version of the report. A few comments before I put up some graphs… this includes not just administration officials, but also judges. It also includes folks from past administations… for example, Sandy Berger is one of the observations for 2005. And there are always people who manage to run the clock for one heck of a long time, and so may not be tried until many years after the, um, alleged crime.

Another thing to keep in mind… the figures only deal with “public corruption”- I believe that means Claude Allen is not on the list… petty shoplifting is not public corruption. Even when the guy who did it had the title of “Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy.” (I note.. I believe Allen got himself a nice deal: his record will be expunged if he successfully completes probation, so it will be as if his shoplifting never happened. Perhaps a future President might nominate him for a judgeship.)

So here’s a graph showing the number of public officials charged with corruption since 1980.

A few comments. I suspect part of the increase under Reagan has something to do with the agency being in charge of this being newly formed (in 1976) and just getting up to speed, plus a lot of new responsibilities for election crimes were added in 1980. Also, arrests could down for several reasons… one is that an administration might be appointing honest people. Another is that an administration is thoroughly politicized, and simply doesn’t charge as many people since most of the people available for prosecution, especially after a few years, are members of the administration and folks appointed by the administration (i.e., judges). Then there is incompetence…

So to flesh out the story, let’s also look at the conviction rate…

Note… convictions can be over 100% simply by convicting some folks charged in earlier years.

Now some summaries…

So what’s the story line here? My guess… Clinton appointed fewer crooks. Despite the 6 years and 60 million bucks spent fishing for anything they could find, leaving every stone unturned didn’t turn up much against Clinton. But Iran Contra snagged a bunch of people, and we all knew what was going on, special prosecutor or not. And the GW administration, well, I don’t think even Laura Bush thinks he’s restored honor and integrity to the White House.

So back to the story… I think Clinton appointed fewer crooks. I think he also appointed more competent US Attorneys and DoJ staff, who were also less politically motivated. Result… a higher conviction rate, and the higher conviction rate also sent a message to potential scofflaws.

But all things are relative… more competent and less politically motivated doesn’t necessarily mean competent or non-political, merely more competent and less politically motivated than the other guys. Consider an interesting detail, no doubt a mere coincidence… There are four years in the sample in which a sitting President runs for re-election. Three of those… 1984, 1996, and 2004 showed an increase in convictions. (1980 may follow the same pattern… it appears much bigger than 1981, though we don’t what 1979 looked like.) 1992 did not. So does an increase in convictions help re-election? Who knows. But it may be that the folks running the show think it does. Presidents smart or tough enough to win re-election might well, in an attempt to leave no stone unturned, manage to clear the docket and up the conviction rate in the year leading up to an election. With Reagan and Clinton, the numbers are stark. Even the staff handpicked by Ashcroft, who in turn was handpicked by GW, managed to put a bit of blip into the series.