CHAMPS Charter High School of the Arts

A brief history of political corruption

In politics, corruption undermines democracy and good governance by flouting or even subverting formal processes.

The activities that constitute illegal corruption differ depending on the country or jurisdiction. Some political funding practices that are legal in one place may be illegal in another.

In some cases, government officials have broad or ill-defined powers, which make it difficult to distinguish between actions.

“[T]oday’s whole political game, run by an absurdist nightmare of moneyed elites, is ridiculous – a game in which corporations are people and money is magically empowered to speak; candidates trek to the corporate suites and secret retreats of the rich, shamelessly selling their political souls,” said Jim Hightower, former Democratic agricultural commissioner of Texas in 2015

A number of corrupt governments have enriched themselves via foreign aid, often spent on showy buildings and armaments.

“You have to go where the money is. Now where the money is, there’s almost always implicitly some string attached. It’s awful hard to take a whole lot of money from a group you know has a particular position then you conclude they’re wrong [and] vote no,” said Vice President Joe Biden in 2015.

The American symbol of inner-city political corruption, William “Boss” Tweed brilliantly mastered the form of aiding his constituents and business partners in return for votes, money and power.

Tweed was convicted in 1873 for his role in a corruption ring that stole at least $1 billion in today’s dollars. He was given a 12-year sentence. Tweed was released after his prison term was reduced, though he was immediately rearrested, the city sued him for $6 million.

Tweed escaped and fled to Spain, he was arrested then sent back to New York City.

“Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government, owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. To destroy this invisible government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day,” from the 1912 platform of the Progressive Party, founded by former President Theodore Roosevelt.

Ray Blanton, former member of the Tennessee House of Representatives, was elected Governor in 1975. He came under significant pressure after he pardoned a convicted double murderer whose father was later found to be a county chairman for Blanton.

Blanton’s most serious acts of corruption occurred just shortly before his term was to expire as pardons were delivered for 24 convicted murderers and 28 prisoners of other crimes in what many believed were performed in exchange for money.

Tom Corbett, Pennsylvania’s fracking-friendly former governor, got $1.7 million from oil and gas companies but assured voters that “The contributions don’t affect my decisions.” If you’re trying to get people to vote for you, you can’t tell them that what they want.

“When you start to connect the actual access to money, and the access involves law enforcement officials, you have clearly crossed a line. What is going on is shocking, terrible,” said James E. Tierney, former attorney general of Maine in 2014.

A Republican politician from Pennsylvania, Budd Dwyer was a member of the state House of Representatives from 1965 to 1970 and spent the following decade in the state Senate. Dwyer was then elected state Treasurer– until committing suicide.

On Jan. 22, 1987, Dwyer was a day away from a sentencing hearing after being found guilty of taking $300,000 in campaign donations from a computer company in a quid pro quo exchange for a $4 million state contract. While also accused of five counts of mail fraud, four counts of interstate transportation in aiding racketeering and one count of conspiracy to commit bribery. Dwyer faced a maximum of 55 years in prison and a $300,000 fine.

Edwin Edwards served four terms as Democratic governor of Louisiana in a time span ranging from 1972 to 1996. The New Orleans Times-Picayune recently described Edwards as such: “He was a swashbuckling figure of engaging charm and dubious ethics whom critics blame for cementing the popular national image of Louisiana as a captivating but corrupt backwater, the province of rogues and scoundrels.”

Despite accusations of impropriety beginning early in his career– a former associate claimed he was involved in several corrupt practices, including the sale of Louisiana agency posts; and he was accused of accepting money from a South Korean rice broker while serving in the U.S. House– his political career continued.