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​Illustration by Errata Carmona​​

The Land of Plunder?

For some, the idea of a corrupt state brings to mind a distant kleptocracy, rife with graft and embezzlement and absent any accountability, in which an elite few use their positions and connections to loot the public till. 

But now, more and more Amer­icans are seeing increased corruption closer to home, according to recent studies and expert opinion.

Nearly six in 10 Americans (58 percent) say that the level of corruption in the United States has increased in the past 12 months. In contrast, only about a third of Americans (34 percent) said the same back in January 2016, according to the U.S. Corruption Barometer 2017, a recent study conducted by Transparency International (TI). TI is a global organization aimed at fighting corruption; it has chapters in more than 100 countries.

In general, the TI report finds that the United States faces "a wide range of domestic challenges related to the abuse of entrusted power for private gain," which is TI's definition of corruption.

Trust in the U.S. federal government is low; the study found that 44 percent of Americans believe that "most" or "all" officials in the White House, including the president, are corrupt—up from 36 percent in 2016.​

"That's a significant increase. We don't usually see the White House reaching these kinds of figures," explains Zoë Reiter, an interim representative to the United States and senior project leader with TI.

The survey reflects a good "horizontal sample" of the U.S. population, and so the finding that almost half believe that corruption is pervasive among White House officials is "cause for concern," she says. "What it's telling you is there's a real loss of trust in our public institutions," she adds.

And the feds are not the only ones suffering from perceptions of corruption. Another report on U.S. corruption, issued in December by the Business Anti-Corruption Portal, found that 25 percent of Americans believe that their local government officials are corrupt.

The Anti-Corruption Portal, endorsed and sponsored by the European Commission, is an online resource for anti-corruption compliance. The portal is maintained by GAN Integrity Solutions, a professional services firm that specializes in compliance solutions.

GAN CEO Thomas Sehested says the increase in the perception of corruption is not surprising, given the current political climate and the frequent media stories about the inquiries into the Trump administration.

"The ongoing investigations into conflicts of interest and collusion of President Trump and his associates are having an impact on public sentiment," Sehested explains. "All of the news at the federal level is certainly trickling down to local governments, whether fairly or unfairly."

However, Sehested, who is also familiar with the TI report, says he was surprised by the sheer speed of the change.

"The most surprising was the increase in public sentiment around overall government corruption," he explains. "It was to be expected with all the headlines, but it has taken hold faster than initially thought."

The TI study also measured perceived corruption levels in specific U.S. institutions, and these varied. On the most corrupt end is the U.S. federal government; 38 percent of Americans say that most or all members of Congress are corrupt, and 44 percent (as mentioned above) say the same about White House officials. On the other end are judges and magistrates; only 16 percent of respondents say that most or all are corrupt.

Police are also near the low corruption end, but this finding differs with race. Overall, 20 percent of respondents believe that most or all U.S. police are corrupt, but almost one-third of African-Americans surveyed perceive the police as highly corrupt.

In terms of the specific types of corruption, respondents in the TI study say that their key issues of concern include the influence of wealthy individuals over the government; pay-to-play politics and the revolving door between elected officials and industry lobbyists; and the abuse of the U.S. financial system by both local elites and foreign officials on the take.

Such issues can create a vicious cycle. "Corruption and inequality can create fertile ground for populist leaders, but populist politics do little to actually stop corruption," the report says. "The findings of the U.S. Corruption Barometer 2017 reinforce this message."

In an interview, Reiter offers clarification; she says that the problem is not so much populism per se as leaders who make political promises that play on voters' fears and economic vulnerability, then leave them unfulfilled once they reach office.

Respondents also take a bleak view when it comes to government efforts—or lack thereof—in fighting corruption: nearly 7 out of 10 respondents (up from about half in 2016) say they believe the government is failing to fight corruption, the study found.

And when asked why they might not report corruption themselves, 55 percent of respondents (up from 31 percent in 2016) say fear of retaliation is the main reason. Still, 74 percent say they believe ordinary people can make a difference in opposing corruption.

On that front, TI makes five recommendations that government leaders can work toward to fight corruption. First, make all political spending truly transparent, so that the public can read about contributions online in real time.

Second, block the government-industry revolving door so that high-level government officials cannot easily become corporate lobbyists and draw on their connections.

Third, prevent the use of anonymous shell companies, which can be vehicles for illicit activity. Fourth, reinforce the independence and oversight capabilities of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, and implement and improve regulations protecting whistleblowers who expose corruption by the government and its contractors. Fifth, give citizens more access to information about government operations, to empower the public to fight corruption.

As for private sector firms, Sehested recommends a practice that some CSOs and security departments are already involved in—implementing a properly designed corporate compliance program that includes well-defined training and policies, along with a due diligence program that allows the organization to continuously monitor all third parties.

Also, companies should encourage, and protect, whistleblowers.

"Making it easy for employees to report on any corruption that they are witness to, without risk of retaliation, is critical," Sehested says.

Moreover, it is important that all of these programs are documented and readily reported on in a single location.

"Self-reporting can save an organization significant amounts of money on potential fines," he explains, "and ongoing reporting allows the compliance team to take proactive actions against corruption, as opposed to waiting for something bad to happen." ​