|May 11, 2006 The New York Times
F.B.I.'s Focus on Public Corruption Includes 2,000 Investigations
By DAVID JOHNSTON
WASHINGTON, May 10 — A post-9/11 effort by the F.B.I. to concentrate on public corruption now includes more than 2,000 investigations under way, highlighted by the Jack Abramoff lobbying inquiry, the racketeering and fraud conviction of former Gov. George Ryan of Illinois, and the multipronged corruption probes after the guilty plea by Randy Cunningham, a former Republican House member from San Diego, bureau officials said.
As one of the Bush administration's least known anticrime efforts, the F.B.I. initiative has yielded an unexpectedly rich array of cases. The results suggest that wrongdoing by public officials at all levels of government is deeply rooted and widespread. Several of the highest profile cases in which the F.B.I. played an active role involve Republicans.
Bureau officials believe that the investment in corruption cases is easily worth the cost. In 2004 and 2005, more than 1,060 government employees were convicted of corrupt activities, including 177 federal officials, 158 state officials, 360 local officials and 365 police officers, according to F.B.I. statistics. The number of convictions rose 27 percent from 2004 to 2005.
In a telephone interview on Wednesday, the F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III, said the bureau was uniquely positioned to investigate corruption. Recalling his days as a prosecutor in Boston, he said: "Having prosecuted public corruption cases, you come to realize first of all that public corruption tears the fabric of a democratic society. You lose faith in public officials, it leads to cynicism, it leads to distrust in government."
The bureau's corruption effort has forced it to shift agents from other criminal programs. Violent street gangs, organized crime and large-scale narcotics trafficking organizations remain high priorities. But bureau officials like Chris Swecker, the top criminal enforcement official, acknowledged that the F.B.I. had reduced its investigation of single-victim fraud cases; smaller, localized drug rings; and nonviolent bank robberies. "We've had to make some very difficult choices," Mr. Swecker said.
Mr. Mueller is giving his first speech on the bureau's corruption effort on Thursday in San Diego, which Mr. Cunningham represented in Congress before he resigned and pleaded guilty to accepting more than $2 million for steering military contracts to friends and supporters.
In the interview, Mr. Mueller said the F.B.I. paid no attention to whether a public official was a Republican or a Democrat. "We have traditionally had the independence to investigate corruption regardless of political affiliation and no matter how powerful the official is," he said, adding: "Over the years it has not made any difference to the F.B.I. People from both parties have been investigated."
The F.B.I. is starting a Web site, reportcorruption.fbi.gov, through which people can send tips on corruption, although not anonymously, to be reviewed by agents at the bureau's headquarters.
Perhaps the most far-reaching of the cases is the one involving Mr. Abramoff, the former lobbyist at the center of a sweeping federal investigation into whether he improperly influenced decisions in Congress. He pleaded guilty to corruption related charges in Washington and Florida earlier this year.
In Illinois, Mr. Ryan was convicted last month of 18 counts of helping to award state business to supporters and misusing state resources for political benefit.
Not all high-profile cases involve Republicans. Last week, a Louisville businessman pleaded guilty in federal court in Virginia to bribing Representative William J. Jefferson, Democrat of Louisiana, with more than $400,000 in payments, stock in his high-tech company and a share of the profits to promote the firm's high-tech business ventures in Africa. Mr. Jefferson has denied ever accepting payments in return for government service.
Much of the public corruption caseload involves state and local officials. The F.B.I. has reached into government operations throughout the United States, with names like Lively Green, an investigation into corruption along the southwest border; Wrinkled Robe, a bribery inquiry that led to several arrests, including two state judges in Louisiana; Tennessee Waltz, a sting operation that led to the arrest of several Tennessee state lawmakers; and Midas Touch, an investigation of the New Mexico state treasurer's office.
The agency has long prosecuted public corruption, but in the 1980's and 1990's, street gangs, drugs and violent crime had a higher priority. "In the field offices, corruption wasn't always the highest priority," Mr. Swecker said. He said top officials in the bureau's 56 field offices largely set their own priorities.
"The director recognized the need for greater clarity and priorities," Mr. Swecker said. "I don't think anybody recognized the number and quality of cases we would generate."
In the restructuring of the F.B.I. after the Sept. 11 attacks, as hundreds of agents were shifted from criminal work to counterterrorism, bureau officials moved more than 200 agents to corruption as an area in which the F.B.I. had almost exclusive responsibility and in which Mr. Mueller and his aides believed the bureau could have the greatest impact.
"We looked at what we really needed to do that nobody else does," said James W. Burrus Jr., a senior official in the criminal division and an architect of the anticorruption program. "This is 100 percent ours."
Almost every one of the F.B.I.'s cases has been the subject of widespread news reports by local news organizations, and Time magazine has reported on the national scope of the effort. In some instances, for example in the cases of Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Abramoff, reporters appear to have been the first to uncover some aspects of possible wrongdoing. Agents regard such articles as tips for which they can claim success if they succeed in bringing a case.