Home News Speeches Building on Efforts to Root Out Public Corruption
  • Robert S. Mueller, III
  • Director
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • City Club of San Diego
  • San Diego, California
  • May 11, 2006

Good afternoon, and thank you, Mayor Sanders, for that kind introduction. It is an honor to receive the key to this great city, and I am pleased to join you here today.

I would like to thank San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kolender for being here. He is a true legend in California law enforcement.

I understand that his Undersheriff, Bill Gore, could not be here today. It is a sign of the great relationship the FBI has with local law enforcement that the Undersheriff is the former Special Agent in Charge of the FBI San Diego office.

And I would like to thank San Diego Police Chief Bill Landsdowne for being here as well. Bill and I worked together when we were both in the Bay area. The FBI could not do its job without our partners in law enforcement around the country. Indeed, we have some of our best partners right here in San Diego.

Later today, I will be visiting with the men and women of the FBI’s San Diego field office. It is an outstanding group, and they are working hard to protect the security of this region.

National security concerns, such as counterterrorism, counterintelligence, and cyber attacks, are the top priorities of the FBI and of our San Diego office. Because of the work done by state and local law enforcement, the FBI, and our federal and international partners, the United States is much safer today than it was five years ago.

But as we approach the five-year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, we must not become complacent about the threats we face. Recent arrests in terrorism cases in Georgia, New York, and last fall up the road in Torrance, California, demonstrate that the threat is still real. Preventing another terrorist attack on the United States remains the FBI’s top priority.

Today, however, I am going to focus on another threat that has hit home here and in many other communities around the country—public corruption.

The vast majority of public officials—both elected and non-elected—are honest in their work and committed to serving their fellow citizens. Unfortunately, a small percentage abuse the public trust. As anyone who follows the news is aware, there are countless examples of corrupt acts around the country.

For a nation built on the rule of law, and faith in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, we can and should do better.

I want to talk today about how the FBI is engaged in the fight against public corruption, the impact our program is having nationally, and how we can continue to work together toward better government and a more secure United States.

To see how focused the FBI is on public corruption, one need look no further than here in San Diego.

As many of you are no doubt aware, the FBI has played an active role in several recent and ongoing investigations of public corruption. Just last year, a city council member was convicted on federal public corruption charges. A jury found that the politician conspired with an owner of an adult entertainment club to ease restrictions on such clubs.

Also last year, former Congressman Duke Cunningham pled guilty to accepting $2.4 million in return for helping defense contractors secure Pentagon contracts.

Even more recently, five members of the San Diego Retirement board were indicted. As alleged in that indictment, they engaged in a scheme to defraud the citizens of San Diego of their right to honest services.

San Diego is not alone. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Chicago, Illinois; Dallas, Texas; Tennessee; and Connecticut are just some of the cities and states in which we have seen significant investigations and prosecutions.

Nor are we in the FBI immune. In 2002, a former FBI special agent was sentenced to 10 years in prison for protecting a source who committed numerous crimes, including murder.

Public corruption is not just an American problem, of course. It plagues many countries around the world.

Although the FBI cannot fight public corruption in other countries, we can help those who do. Our International Law Enforcement Academy in Budapest, Hungary, and our National Academy, here in the United States, provide critical training to foreign law enforcement officers. That training promotes the growth of stable governments and respect for the rule of law.

It is a struggle for many countries. I recently met with the Attorney General of the Dominican Republic, who has made rooting out public corruption in his country a priority. He said that when he first started prosecuting these cases, a defendant approached him. The defendant said, “If you are intent on prosecuting public corruption in the Dominican Republic, you are going to need a stadium to hold all the defendants.”

To which the Attorney General replied, “I have a stadium, and I am going to do my best to fill it.”

We do not need a stadium here in the United States, but the problem of public corruption is significant. And we in the FBI are responding.

Since 9/11, we have had to prioritize how we use our resources, placing our national security programs first. But at the same time, we made public corruption our top criminal investigative priority.

We did this because public corruption is different from other crimes. It does not just strike at the heart of good government—it can strike at the security of our communities and our nation.

Last year, we ran an investigation in Tucson, Arizona, called “Operation Lively Green.” The investigation exposed serious corruption along our southern border. Fifty current and former U.S. soldiers and law enforcement officers pled guilty to accepting $650,000 in bribes. They conspired to smuggle cocaine, drug money, and illegal immigrants across our borders.

If public officials violate their oath to uphold the law by smuggling drugs or humans, where would they draw the line? For the right price, would they assist terrorists to smuggle a bomb into the country, or help terrorist operatives cross the border?

In this way, public corruption can permeate all aspects of society, and as well affect national security. Corrupt officials can allow organized crime to operate with impunity, allow drugs to flow into our cities, and even allow terrorists to enter the country.

Public corruption is a betrayal of the public’s sacred trust. It erodes public confidence and undermines the strength of our democracy. Unchecked, it threatens our government and our way of life.

That is why I believe it belongs as our top criminal investigative priority. And that is why, more than ever, the FBI must be actively engaged in combating public corruption.

Rooting out corruption is exceptionally difficult, but it is a mission for which the FBI is singularly situated. We have the skills to conduct necessary undercover operations and the ability to perform electronic surveillance. But more than that, we have insulation from political pressure.

Investigating public corruption is an FBI commitment as old as the Bureau itself. When the FBI was founded in 1908, its responsibilities included the investigation of land fraud, which often involved public corruption. The first head of the Bureau, Stanley Finch, took great pride in this line of work. He wrote, “I am always particularly glad to see brought to justice a person guilty of wrongdoing by injuring persons who it was his sworn duty as a government officer to protect.”

Given what is at stake, today’s FBI must have that same dedication—and we do.

Since 2001, when we marked public corruption as our top criminal priority, we have significantly increased the number of special agents working these cases. As a result, we are seeing tremendous returns on that investment.

We now have approximately 2,200 public corruption cases pending nationwide. Indictments are up 40 percent. And in the last two years, FBI investigations have led to the conviction of more than 1,000 government employees involved in corrupt activities.

Some of these cases are well-known examples of public corruption:

The former governor of Illinois, George Ryan, was convicted of a pattern of fraud committed while in office. Former Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff pled guilty to conspiracy, mail fraud, and tax evasion. He will have to pay more than $26 million in restitution.

For every scheme on Abramoff’s scale, there are many more cases that involve less money, but are no less a violation of the public trust. In Baltimore, two police officers were convicted of robbing drug dealers. In Alabama, a police chief pled guilty to shaking down motorists.

It does not matter if it is a big city or a small town. It does not matter if it is millions of dollars or just hundreds of dollars. There is no level of “acceptable corruption.” The violation of the oath of office is the same.

These investigations do not tell the whole story. The more we uproot public corruption, the more we drive reform throughout all levels of government.

Let me give you a couple of examples. Last year, we arrested five Tennessee state legislators. They were charged with accepting $146,000 in bribes. This investigation spurred sweeping ethics reform in the state of Tennessee.

And in Philadelphia, multiple city officials and contractors were convicted of mail fraud, money laundering, and extortion. In response, the citizens of Philadelphia voted to amend the city charter, enacting some of the nation’s strictest ethics laws.

Now is the time to build on this momentum.

Our most important partner in this fight is you the public. The support the FBI receives from our partners in federal, state, and local law enforcement is valuable. But our most important asset truly is the American public.

Many of our investigations start with a tip from someone who encounters corruption. There is a growing intolerance by the American people of public corruption—an intolerance reflected in the willingness to come forward and report abuse of public office. We are always grateful for those who have come forward to report corruption. That information is critical to our work.

Unfortunately, for many reasons, corruption is not always reported. Some may fear retribution at work or in business. Others may be indifferent, thinking that corruption is just the cost of doing business. Still others may not know to whom they should turn.

Because of this, we are working to make it easier for the public to report public corruption.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, we set up a telephone hotline to receive tips about public corruption related to the rebuilding of New Orleans. We received 2,500 calls, initiated more than 400 investigations, and have already netted a public official who allegedly extorted a kickback of $100,000.

The tip line was successful because people knew where to direct their information. We want to replicate that success nationwide. We have established a website to enable the public to send information about public corruption to the FBI. The website is reportcorruption.fbi.gov.

When you type in that address, you will see a page that gives you instructions on how to report corruption to the FBI—by phone or through the Internet. Our analysts will then review that information case-by-case and ensure there is follow-up.

Through this website, and with help from the public, we will continue to build on our efforts to root out public corruption.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Unless a man is honest, we have no right to keep him in public life.” That sentiment is as true today as it was in Roosevelt’s time.

We are fortunate to live in a country where public corruption is the exception, rather than the rule. But we must never relax our efforts against those who betray the public trust.

Public corruption, unfortunately, will never be totally eradicated. But the will of the American people to fight it, so as to preserve our freedoms and protect our democracy, is strong. And the FBI stands committed to working with the citizens of this great country, this great city, and our partners in law enforcement to ensure that public servants serve the public good.

Thank you.

 
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