Investigators and prosecutors have been entrusted with a great responsibility. While the investigation and/or prosecution of public officials is often necessary, the people in these positions must carefully evaluate the accusations being made and consider the repercussions that they could have if the person is innocent. Further, prosecutors are forbidden to go off on “fishing” expeditions. This means that he, or she, must have facts to back up a warrant. They cannot issue a warrant based on the idea that “something” would likely be found to charge a person with (Frampton 1976).
In the same way that this principal can protect innocent people from being harassed through the court system, the same principal can prevent investigators and prosecutors from being able to obtain justice against people whom they know have committed, or are committing, a crime but they simply do not have enough evidence to indict them (Frampton 1976).
In an article published by Govering.com, Greenblat (2018) discusses the challenges that prosecutors face when it comes to successfully convicting public corruption cases, due to the Supreme Court’s decision to raise the burden of proof. As a result of this decision, many politicians have been able to have their cases thrown out of court. The ethical dilemma here is that, since the statutes governing these issues are overly broad and unclear, they lack the teeth necessary to convict for these crimes (Greenblat 2018).
One problem that is seen in defining what is and is not considered public corruption is that, in the recent case of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez in which the court declared a mistrial and dismissal of the case, it was made clear that “gifts between friends,” no matter how valuable, are not considered to be proof of corruption. And, since the burden of proof was raised (as a result of the ruling on a case involving Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell), many high-profile corruption convictions have been overturned. Both of these cases have been problematic for prosecutors.
Furthermore, if the accused has the financial means (which they likely do if they are in a position of power) and the right connections within the court system, it is very unlikely that the case will make it to trial. With this in mind, prosecutors are likely to be very gun shy when it comes to pursuing certain untouchable individuals if they know that their chances of winning a case against them are slim to none (Greeblat 2018).
Examples of Governmental Crime and Public Corruption
In a federal criminal complaint that was unsealed last January, “one of Chicago’s most powerful figures and a vestige of the city’s old Democratic machine” was charged with extortion for allegedly using his political position for financial gain (Meisner 2019).
According to reports, Burke had been on the FBI’s radar for years but had been considered too “clever and sophisticated” to be caught. While many of Burke’s colleagues were being charged and sentenced to prison for similar crimes, Burke somehow managed to slip through the cracks, despite numerous accusations, until now. If convicted, the long-time alderman, identified as Edward Burke, could face up to twenty years in prison (Meisner 2019).
The problem of public corruption plagues all levels of government from small town America to Washington. In 1985, a small town in Dyer County, Tennessee received national attention when its town sheriff was arrested and impeached on corruption charges. The story depicts his reign of terror over the town and how the system tolerated his behavior. Sheriff Tommy Cribbs and his deputies were found to be some of the most dangerous and feared criminals around. Residents feared the very men who were meant to serve and protect, as they would often bully and threaten them to achieve their immoral agendas. They stole money and livestock, burned down buildings in insurance fraud, intimidated witnesses and committed acts of violence. There was no limit to what they would do to maintain their status quo within the town. The sheriff’s power over the town was passed down from his father who was reportedly just as corrupt as his son. It was not until the county’s attorney general, Jim Horner, bucked the system that the ball finally started to roll in the right direction. A assassination order was put out on Horner but, luckily, the FBI got involved and shut the racquet down before it could be carried out (ABC 20/20 1985).
Due to the challenges of prosecuting public corruption, it is more necessary now than ever for the public to be, not just assertive but, aggressive in sharing information they have pertaining to corruption. Statutes and caselaw seem to protect corrupt officials rather than the people and these cases rely heavily on the courage of whistleblowers testimonies. However, regardless of the repercussions, investigators and prosecutors must also display courage if they expect the public to trust them. Information shared must be acted upon and followed up on. The people lose trust in their government when they cry out for help and their cries fall on deaf ears.
It is important to remember that public officials work for us, the public, and when they are not doing their jobs correctly it is up to us to remove them from that position. The public must unite as one voice and take the power back and prosecutors/investigators must have their backs when they do. If something is not done, the problem will spread and worsen until the law is nothing more than a front for the most feared and powerful gang in the United States.
Frampton, G. (1976). Some practical and ethical problems of prosecuting public officials.
Maryland Law Review. 36(1). Retrieved from https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/56357306.pdf.
Greenblatt, A. (2018). Public corruption cases are harder to prove than ever. Retrieved from
Meisner, J. (2019). Powerful Chicago Democrat charged in federal corruption case. Retrieved f
Stafford, T. (2018). 11-1985 Dyer Co, TN Blues Sheriff Tommy Cribbs arrested. ABC 20/20.
YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rBh6IygxOMk.