Crimes by Government Officials

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President Nixon resignation speech

President Richard Nixon is the only president to have resigned in the history of the United States. He did so in August 1974, rather than go through probable impeachment. It was almost guaranteed that Nixon would be charged, convicted and removed from the oval office for his involvement in one of the most well known governmental scandals. The Watergate Scandal was the title given to the events involving five men breaking and entering into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters in Washington D.C.’s Watergate complex in June 1972 (an election year). The burglars ransacked offices – they were after something. The FBI found evidence that the burglars were being paid by a fund administered by the Committee for the Re-Election of the President (re-election of Nixon). Robbyn Swan, author of a Richard Nixon biography (The Arrogance of Power), explains that Nixon lied when he said the White House had no implication in the scandal. “The evidence, including the President’s own comments on a secret recording system, was to show that Nixon orchestrated attempts to obstruct the FBI’s investigation, and the payment of hush money to those arrested. He finally resigned in August 1974, as impeachment loomed,” Swan wrote for The Telegraph.

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Swan discusses the numerous motives behind the break-in, from wishing to find evidence that certain Democrats were involved in a call-girl ring to finding out if the Democrats had information on a hefty financial contribution given to Nixon from Howard Hughes. Whatever the reasons were, it seems the underlying motive was to make the Democrats look good and to get re-elected. Crimes committed by government officials are often equated with the term public corruption. Seumas Miller (in “Corruption”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Spring 2011 Edition) cites the definition of corruption, “the abuse of power by a public official for private gain”. The FBI considers public corruption as their “top priority among criminal investigations” because of the many potential impacts it has, from huge amounts of tax dollars being taken away from the American people to drastically threatening national security. Crimes committed by various levels of government all around the world cover a whole spectrum, from bribery to genocide.

Types of Government Crimes

There are various types of crimes committed by government officials. Naturally there are those crimes that seem to pertain to all members of society that a public official may also commit, such as a DUI or assault. Then there is a vast array specially associated with government personnel and agencies.

First let’s look at some of the types of crimes the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s Public Corruption/Civil Rights program deals with:

  • Border Corruption: A U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer allowing an illegal alien, a member of a drug cartel or someone carrying weapons across the border in exchange for financial or sexual rewards are examples of border corruption. (In 2008, ABC News’ Justin Rood reported on one officer who took in an illegal female as his girlfriend and another who was selling confiscated marijuana for profit). Disaster Fraud: The FBI points out an example of a day in 2009 where 18 public officials were charged with felonies for siphoning money, designed for Hurricane Katrina relief projects, into their own pockets.
  • Election Crimes: Election crimes can include connivingly accepting over the maximum amount allowed for campaign donations, bribing voters or recruiting illegal voters and violating civil rights to either impede or force someone to vote.
  • Economic Fraud: The FBI cites several examples of economic fraud committed by various levels of public officials, from police officers and judges to elected officials. These include directly stealing government funds, extortion, bribery, contract fraud, falsifying appraisals and other documents for economic gain, bid rigging and more.
  • Foreign Corruption: A common example of foreign corruption is when companies bribe government officials in another country so they can set up or maintain their business in that foreign country. (“In the mid-1970s, over 400 U.S. companies admitted making questionable or illegal payments in excess of $300 million to foreign government officials, politicians, and political parties”, states the FBI).
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The Discovery Channel’s Crime Countdowns webpage also displays a range of governmental crimes in its “Top 10 Government Crimes” list. Some examples include the Chinese army being ordered to shoot peaceful protesters at Tiananmen Square; the Watergate Scandal; the violent crimes under President Slobodan Milosevic including the genocide of Muslims living in Bosnia; the killing of up to 100,000 Kurdish people under Saddam Hussein; the Rwandan Genocide initiated by the presidential guard and other government and military officials which resulted in the killing of 800,000 Tutsis; and the Holocaust carried out by Hitler and the Nazi regime resulting in millions of fatalities.

Finally, Pearson Education’s Information Please Database discusses the types of crimes Presidents, Vice Presidents and other government officials (such as senators, judges and cabinet members) have been or could be impeached for – “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors”. Two Presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson for violating the Tenure of Office Act (he attempted to fire the Secretary of War, Edward Stanton, without Senate approval) and Bill Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice (related to the Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones scandals).



FBI Special Agent Patrick Bohrer states that most government officials are not corrupt or do not commit crimes. But a handful at the local, state and federal levels do engage in corrupt or criminal behavior for personal gain. “A small number make decisions for the wrong reasons, usually, to line their own pockets or those of friends and family,” states Bohrer. “These people can be found, and have been found, in legislatures, courts, city halls, law enforcement departments, school and zoning boards, government agencies of all kinds (including those that regulate elections and transportation), and even companies that do business with government”.

“A small number make decisions for the wrong reasons, usually, to line their own pockets or those of friends and family.”

Miller (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) adds however that greed and financial gain are not always the motives for corruption. He says that sex, gambling or drug addictions and the desire to feel more power or to raise one’s sense of status are also factors. “Many of those who occupy positions of authority are motivated by a desire to exercise power for its own sake,” writes Miller. He adds, describing extreme urges for power, “A person in authority motivated by sadistic pleasure who abuses her power by meting out cruel and unjust treatment to those subject to her authority” (Perhaps this sadistic nature describes leaders capable of organizing genocides).

Finally, in some cases, public officials may exhibit criminal or corrupt behavior because they believe it is morally right to do so. For example a police officer may fabricate evidence or an Attorney General may hide evidence in order to punish someone they feel is truly guilty of a heinous crime.


Case Study

On December 9, 2008, Governor of Illinois, Rob Blagojevich was arrested on public corruption charges. On January 8, 2009, he was impeached by the Illinois House and Senate. On June 27, 2011, Blagojevich was found guilty of 17 out of 20 charges. Later he was sentenced to 14 years in the Federal Correctional Institution Englewood in Colorado.

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Rob Blagojevich mug shot

During the court proceedings, prosecutors stated Blagojevich was wrapped up in a “political corruption crime spree,” according to The Telegraph. His most famous criminal act was attempting to benefit financially or make a trade for filling Barack Obama’s former United States Senate seat which he left after being elected President.

Specifically Blagojevich’s 17 charges pertained to wire fraud (discussing over the phone campaign contributions, setting up a charitable organization in his name and other personal benefits in exchange for the Senate seat); extortion (i.e. attempting to extort Children’s Memorial Hospital by offering to facilitate payment increases for doctors in exchange for campaign donations); and bribery-related charges. Evidence leading to Blagojevich’s conviction included several wiretaps recorded by the FBI as part of an undercover operation. On one, he is heard saying, “I’ve got this thing, and it’s F’ing golden. I’m just not giving it up for fucking nothing,” presumably talking about Obama’s former Senate seat.

According to the National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC), Blagojevich’s apparent financial troubles may have been motive for the corruption. “Blagojevich and his wife, Patti, as it turns out, had about $200,000 in outstanding consumer debt at the time of his December 2008 arrest,” stated the NLPC. “Anxiety, if not desperation, over how to pay the money back was likely a major explanation for the ex-governor’s eagerness to peddle President-Elect Barack Obama’s soon-to-be-vacated Senate seat to the highest bidder”.