Public Corruption

Corruption Public Official

Public corruption, the FBI’s top criminal investigative priority, poses a fundamental threat to our national security and way of life. It can affect everything from how well our borders are secured and our neighborhoods protected to how verdicts are handed down in courts to how public infrastructure such as roads and schools are built. It also takes a significant toll on the public’s pocketbooks by siphoning off tax dollars—it is estimated that public corruption costs the U.S. government and the public billions of dollars each year. The FBI is uniquely situated to combat corruption, with the skills and capabilities to run complex undercover operations and surveillance.


The Bureau’s Public Corruption program focuses on:

  • Investigating violations of federal law by public officials at the federal, state, and local levels of government;
  • Overseeing the nationwide investigation of allegations of fraud related to federal government procurement, contracts, and federally funded programs;
  • Combating the threat of public corruption along the nation’s borders and points of entry in order to decrease the country’s vulnerability to drug and weapons trafficking, alien smuggling, espionage, and terrorism.
  • Addressing environmental crime, election fraud, and matters concerning the federal government procurement, contracts, and federally funded programs.

In 2008, the FBI created the International Corruption Unit (ICU) to oversee the increasing number of investigations involving global fraud against the U.S. government and the corruption of federal public officials outside of the continental U.S. involving U.S. funds, persons, businesses, etc. The ICU’s tasks include:

  • Overseeing the Bureau’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and antitrust cases;
  • Maintaining operational oversight of several International Contract Corruption Task Forces, which investigate and prosecute individuals and firms engaged in bribery, illegal gratuities, contract extortion, bid rigging, collusion, conflicts of interest, product substitution, items and/or services invoiced without delivery, theft, diversion of goods, and individual and corporate conspiracies on every level of U.S. government operations.

No other law enforcement agency has attained the kind of success the FBI has achieved in combating corruption. This success is due largely to the cooperation and coordination from a number of federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies to combat public corruption. These partnerships include, but are not limited to the Department of Justice, Agency Offices of Inspector General; law enforcement agencies’ internal affairs divisions; federal, state and local law enforcement and regulatory investigative agencies; and state and county prosecutor’s offices.

FBI Agent Marks Progress During Corruption Case in San Juan
ABSCAM Undercover Sting

Types of Corruption 

Border Corruption

The federal government is responsible for protecting approximately 7,000 miles along the U.S. border and 95,000 miles of U.S. shoreline, and every day, over a million people visit the U.S. and enter through one of the more than 300 official ports of entry into the U.S., as well as through seaports and international airports. The FBI recognizes the very real threat public corruption at our nation’s borders and all other ports of entry pose.

Common acts of border corruption involve drug trafficking and alien smuggling. Throughout the U.S., the FBI has investigated corrupt government and law enforcement officials who accept bribes and gratuities in return for allowing loads of drugs or aliens to pass through ports of entry or checkpoints; protecting and escorting loads of contraband; overlooking contraband; providing needed documents, such as immigration papers and driver’s licenses; leaking sensitive law enforcement information; and conducting unauthorized records checks.  

Border corruption potentially impacts national security as well—corrupt officers might believe they are accepting a bribe simply in return for allowing a carload of illegal aliens to enter the U.S., when they might actually be facilitating the entry of a group of terrorists. Or a corrupt official who expedites immigration paperwork or helps obtain an identification document in return for a bribe or gratuity might actually be facilitating an operation of a terrorist cell, foreign counterintelligence network, or criminal enterprise.

Oftentimes the Bureau brings its expertise to bear on joint investigations with its partners in federal, state, and local law enforcement. May of these investigations involve FBI border corruption task forces and working groups located in nearly two dozen cities along our borders.  Members of these task forces and working groups stand shoulder to shoulder to combat corrupt officials, both operationally and through the sharing of intelligence and information, along with the use of trend analysis, lessons learned, and best practices.  

Federally, the FBI coordinates investigative efforts along the borders with the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General; Customs and Border Protection Internal Affairs; Transportation Security Administration; Drug Enforcement Administration; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement-Office of Professional Responsibility.

Election Crimes

In democratic societies like the United States, the voting process is a means by which citizens hold their government accountable; conflicts are channeled into resolutions and power transfers peacefully. Our system of representative government works only when honest ballots are not diluted by fraudulent ballots. The FBI, through its Public Corruption Unit, has an important but limited role in ensuring fair and free elections. Election crimes become federal cases when:

  • The ballot includes one or more federal candidates;
  • The crime involves an election official abusing his duties;
  • The crime pertains to fraudulent voter registration;
  • Voters are not U.S. citizens.

Federal election crimes fall into three broad categories—campaign finance crimes, voter/ballot fraud, and civil rights violations.

Campaign finance

  • A person gives more than $4,600 to a federal candidate (various limits apply for donations to and from committees and groups);
  • A donor asks a friend to give money to a federal candidate, promising to reimburse the friend; the friend makes the donation and the real donor reimburses him;
  • A corporation gives corporate money to a federal candidate;
  • A person who is neither a citizen nor a green card holder gives money to a federal, state, or local candidate.

Civil rights violations

  • Someone threatens a voter with physical or economic harm unless the voter casts his ballot in a particular way;
  • Someone tries to prevent qualified voters from getting to the polls in a federal election;
  • A scheme exists to prevent minorities from voting.

Voter/ballot fraud

  • A voter intentionally gives false information when registering to vote;
  • A voter receives money or something of value in exchange for voting in a federal election or registering to vote;
  • Someone votes more than once in a federal election (e.g., someone mails in absentee ballots in the names of dead people);
  • An election official corrupts his or her office to benefit a candidate or party (e.g., lets unqualified voters cast ballots).

What is NOT a federal election crime:

  • Giving voters a ride to the polls;
  • Offering voters a stamp to mail an absentee ballot;
  • Giving voters time off to vote;
  • Violating state campaign finance laws;
  • Distributing inaccurate campaign literature;
  • Campaigning too close to the polls;
  • Trying to convince an opponent to withdraw from a race.

If you think an election crime is occurring, call the election crimes coordinator at your local FBI office.

Prison Corruption

The FBI’s prison corruption initiative, which began in June 2014, addresses contraband smuggling by local, state, and federal prison officials in exchange for bribe payments. Through this initiative, the Bureau works to develop and strengthen collaborative relationships with state/local corrections departments and the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Inspector General to help identify prison facilities plagued with systemic corruption and employ appropriate criminal investigative techniques to combat the treat. Prison officials and staff being co-opted, even if unwittingly, betrays the public trust, threatens the integrity of the justice system in the U.S., and threaten national security interests overall.

Schemes to corrupt prison officials come in a variety of forms, including:

  • Testing: An offer of simple items, like prison commissary goods, is made to prison officials. If accepted, the inmate confirms the official’s administrative misstep, then urges the official to smuggle contraband under threat of reporting the official’s misconduct.
  • Active recruiting: Civilian gang members with no prior criminal history are recruited by incarcerated gang members to apply to become correctional officers, with promises of additional income paid by the inmates’ criminal enterprise.
  • Empathy: Prison inmates study corrections personnel working in the facility and determine whether particular staff members are susceptible to exploitation. This ploy typically results in improper interpersonal relationships and the corrupted official’s integrity being compromised to the benefit of the inmate.

International Corruption 

The FBI’s International Corruption Unit (ICU) is the leading investigative entity in combating foreign corruption. ICU’s mission is to lead law enforcement efforts in the fight against foreign corruption. ICU manages five programs: the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), Kleptocracy Initiative, Antitrust, International Fraud against the Government, and International Corruption of Federal Public Officials.

Foreign Corrupt Practices Act

ICU has management responsibility and program oversight for FBI investigations of the FCPA. The 1977 legislation has two main provisions: the first deals with bribery of foreign officials, and the second deals with accounting transparency requirements under the Securities Exchange Act. The dual elements were designed to facilitate parallel criminal and civil enforcement to stem corruption and promote fair business practices worldwide. The anti-bribery provision makes it illegal for U.S. companies and certain foreign companies to bribe foreign officials to obtain or retain business. The bribes can be in the form of money or any other items of value. The accounting provision of the FCPA focuses on requirements applying to U.S. companies and all foreign companies whose securities are listed on the U.S. stock exchange. The United States cannot charge the foreign official under the FCPA; rather, the U.S. works together with international law enforcement partners by investigating U.S. subjects complicit in paying bribes to foreign officials. The supply and demand equation of bribe paying and receiving illustrates the FCPA and kleptocracy violations as two sides of the same coin. For more information read the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) FCPA Resource Guide.  


Kleptocracy is a form of political corruption in which the ruling government seeks personal gain and status at the expense of the governed, literally meaning “the rule by thieves.” Through graft and embezzlement of state funds, corrupt leaders amass tremendous wealth at the expense of the broader populace. Some of the most egregious examples have occurred in countries with very high rates of poverty. The inherent challenge for corrupt leaders is covertly expatriating and holding money in secure locations where it can be accessed in the future. Generally, that requires international movement of funds. When transfers occur in U.S. dollars or transit the U.S. banking system, federal money laundering jurisdiction is established. The FBI initiates money laundering investigations to trace the international movement of assets and, in conjunction with foreign partners, forfeit and repatriate assets back to legitimate authorities in victim countries.

Among the most challenging money laundering investigations are those targeting “gatekeepers,” which may include bankers, brokerage houses, trust companies, attorneys, accountants, money managers, notaries, or real estate agents. ICU investigates these international business people who provide professional services to illicit actors wishing to disguise the source or nature of their money. These insiders have unique knowledge concerning the financial and legal systems in which they operate, making detection difficult. ICU’s kleptocracy program is run in close coordination with DOJ’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative (KARI), part of the broader Priority International Money Laundering Threat (PIMLAT) violation.

International Contract Corruption

ICU has program management responsibility over cases involving international fraud against the government and international corruption of federal public officials. The FBI was a co-founder of the International Contract Corruption Task Force (ICCTF), created in 2006 to address contract fraud concerns stemming from overseas U.S. government spending during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  These cases typically involve bribery, gratuities, contract extortion, bid rigging, collusion, conflicts of interest, product substitution, items/services invoiced without delivery, diversion of goods, and corporate and individual conspiracies at various levels of U.S. government operations. ICU’s program extends beyond the war effort to include worldwide Contingency Operations involving U.S. military actions, foreign aid and development, and humanitarian aid in any international region. Spending on these programs is highly susceptible to corruption and fraud by those wishing to take advantage of the chaotic circumstances surrounding these benevolent endeavors. Misuse of U.S. funds overseas poses a threat to the United States and other countries by promoting corruption within the host nation, damaging diplomatic relations, inadvertently supporting insurgent activity, and potentially strengthening criminal and terrorist organizations.


ICU has program management responsibility for FBI’s antitrust investigations which target conspiracies among competitors to fix prices, rig bids, or allocate markets or customers. Price fixing, bid rigging, and market allocation deprive U.S. consumers of true competition, an economic bedrock of our free and democratic society. Perpetrators of antitrust crimes are found at home and abroad—they often operate in multinational companies that bask in illegal profits at the expense of U.S. consumers. The ill-gotten gains and competitive advantages stolen by cartels reduce supply, eliminate incentives to compete by offering better and more innovative products and services, and destabilize economic markets.

ICU Initiatives 

Most recently, ICU has undertaken two large initiatives: the creation of three international corruption squads dedicated to investigating FCPA, kleptocracy, and international antitrust cases and the development of a robust private sector outreach program.

International Corruption Squads

The International Corruption Squads (ICS), based in New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C, were created to address the national impact of foreign bribery, kleptocracy, and international antitrust schemes. These schemes negatively affect U.S. financial markets and economic growth when not adequately addressed. They are unique in nature in that they are international matters with the overt criminal acts typically occurring outside U.S. borders. Without these dedicated resources, it was difficult for FBI field offices to investigate international matters that did not directly affect their area of responsibility as clearly as some other violations; therefore, the FBI has created three international corruption squads fully dedicated to addressing international corruption matters without draining the resources of individual field offices.

The international corruption squads are a vital resource to combat international cartels and corruption. The violations addressed by the ICSs are equally recognized by both DOJ and the FBI as matters posing significant risks to U.S. national interests. These squads not only lend additional resources to a global threat but they also allow the Bureau to proactively attack the matters by using sophisticated investigative techniques that have long been successful against other complex criminal matters.

Private Sector Outreach 

In an effort to combat international corruption and cartels, the FBI’s ICU created a proactive strategy that places an emphasis on strengthening existing relationships and forging new partnerships in the private sector. This is not new to the FBI, which has leveraged relationships throughout our 100+ years from our fight against organized crime to our ongoing battle against terrorism. Nonetheless, we believe by fostering these vital relationships, the Bureau will be able to effectively fight international corruption to ensure a fair competitive global market environment for companies resulting in a strong U.S. economy.