It's Time to End Corruption Complacency

05/11/2015 02:49 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2016

From the comparatively modest malfeasance in the New York State legislature (both the State assembly Speaker as well as the Senate majority leader have been indicted for corruption) to the mega-million dollar graft engulfing Brazilian businessmen and politicians today, on to the all-consuming kleptocracy in the Kremlin, the abuse of public office for private gain is rampant.

Its cause is a combination of greed, arrogance and opportunity. The corrupt are aided by widespread complacency: a sense that corruption has always been around and always will be, so let us just accept it.

The U.S. government, for example, is acutely aware of the massive scale of corruption in every aspect of governance in Afghanistan, just as it was in Iraq. For years, our government shipped hundreds of millions of dollars into these two countries, ignoring how much of it was stolen and even used to support America's enemies. This policy continues in Afghanistan.

U.S. reconstruction aid to Afghanistan alone over the last decade has exceeded $100 billion and when I asked at a conference in Washington DC how much of this has simply disappeared and cannot be accounted for, U.S. Special Inspector General John Sopko throws up his hands and says "its billions and billions."

At home, American citizens have been largely silent as an explosion of cash in every corner of politics undermines the democratic process. Ann Ravel, the chair of the Federal Election Commission says her office is "worse than dysfunctional." Vast amounts will be spent over the next 18 months by individuals and small groups of the wealthy in support of candidates for the highest public offices in the country -- do you really think these donors are not going to seek something in return?

In Western Europe, governments and their leaders seem unmoved by the mounting media reports of rampant abuse. Former Luxembourg prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker transformed his village of a country into the base for hundreds of multinational companies seeking to avoid taxes in the countries where they do business. When a journalist leaked detailed documents of the schemes, he was arrested and now faces a trial. Meanwhile, Juncker was elevated by Europe's leaders to become president of the 19-country European Union Commission.

Ignoring money laundering

From New York to Miami to London and to the South of France, thousands of the most expensive properties have been acquired by shell companies, registered in places like the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands, whose real ownership is kept secret. The proceeds of money laundering, corruption and crime, may well be used to finance many of these shell companies, but major Western governments are largely ignoring this.

And it is just such behavior, amounting to complacency in the face of corruption that provides the corrupt with their opportunities. Enablers of tax avoidance like Juncker, or of vast U.S. taxpayer-funded contracts to Afghan businessmen through U.S. AID and Pentagon aid programs, face no consequences for their actions. So the corruption multiplies. The arrogance of the officials and business people who bribe and take bribes stems from a sense of impunity where they believe, mostly with good reason, that they will never be investigated, let alone punished for their crimes.

It is not all hopeless. The determination of U.S. public prosecutors continues to serve as a shining model. There may be a good deal of corruption in U.S. public life, but no country has as many public prosecutors dedicated to investigating leading politicians when there is a whiff of graft and kick-backs. From Virginia to New York to Illinois, the highest politicians have been brought down by the zeal and skill of the public prosecutors.

More broadly, increasingly well informed citizens, mobilized by rising numbers of effective anticorruption non-governmental organizations are protesting abuse by their national leaders and campaigning in support of No Impunity. Such action contributed to the start of the Arab Spring demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt in January 2011.

Recently, for example, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets to call for the impeachment of president Dilma Roussef. Due in large measure to public pressure, the nation's top judges and public prosecutors are now moving more assertively to investigate allegations of major corruption in state-owned enterprises and to arrest suspected villains than ever before.

Threats to Activists

However, we are also seeing from Russia to Venezuela to Ethiopia and in many other countries that the more successful the anticorruption activists are, so the more they are being threatened by those in government who are determined to hold on to power and maintain their impunity. The reprisals are very real, as illustrated by the murder of Boris Nemtsov, the Russian anticorruption pro-democracy leader in Russia earlier this year, and by the murder of Transparency International activist Gustave Makonene in Rwanda in July 2013.

The failure to fully and explicitly address the causes and consequences of corruption in America's major strategic partner countries has added to insecurity. The failure of major national and multilateral aid agencies to forthrightly demand governance reforms in many natural resource rich countries where tiny elites live in splendor and the population as a whole lives in squalor, should be unacceptable.

The inability of many poorer nations to enforce environmental protection laws because of lack of skilled inspection systems, political will, and officials willing to take bribes, is producing a rising global threat.

There is too great an acceptance of overseas corruption across the foreign policy establishments in our country -- from Congressional committees to the White House, State Department, CIA and Pentagon, to think tanks and the establishment media. Similarly, our inadequate enforcement of our campaign finance laws to ensure full transparency and accountability is a tragedy. A far stronger focus in public policy and debate on fighting corruption is overdue.