09.27.08

On S. 1946, The “Public Corruption Prosecution Improvements Act of 2007”

More than a year ago, I introduced a bill aimed at restoring Americans’ faith in their elected officials.  The bipartisan Public Corruption Prosecutions Improvements Act would complement the accomplishments this Congress has made in passing important ethics and lobbying reforms by giving law enforcement additional tools and resources to root out corrupt conduct.  Although the Judiciary Committee reported the bill last November, it has been stalled on the Senate floor for nearly a year.  In the waning days of this Congress, we should take the opportunity to take up and promptly pass this critical legislation.     

 

Since the bill’s introduction, we have seen repeated instances of rampant and corrosive corruption at all levels of government, including at key Federal agencies.  Just this month, the Office of Inspector General for the Department of the Interior documented numerous instances where the “royalty-in-kind” program – a program that collects billions of dollars from private companies that tap key energy resources – was corrupted by Federal employees who accepted benefits from energy companies “with prodigious frequency.”  Investigators and prosecutors must have the resources and tools they need to go after this kind of corrupt conduct that compromises America’s security.  Too often, though, strained budgets and loopholes in existing corruption laws mean that corrupt conduct goes unchecked or simply cannot be prosecuted.

 

Make no mistake: the stain of corruption has spread to all levels of Government and has affected both major political parties.  This is not a Democratic or Republican problem – it is an American problem that victimizes every single one of us by chipping away at the foundations of our democracy.  Congress must send a strong signal that it will not tolerate public corruption by providing better tools for Federal investigators and prosecutors to combat it.  This bill will do exactly that.  

 

We are also just now learning the role of fraud and perhaps corruption in the catastrophic unraveling of the financial markets and the economy.  Prosecutors must have every tool at their disposal to restore accountability.  This bill will strengthen the tools prosecutors have to crack down on these insidious crimes.

 

The bill gives investigators and prosecutors more time and resources to effectively enforce existing anti-corruption laws.  Specifically, it extends the statute of limitations from five to six years for the most serious public corruption offenses.  Public corruption cases are among the most difficult and time-consuming cases to investigate and prosecute.  Bank fraud, arson and passport fraud, among other offenses, all have 10-year statutes of limitations.  Public corruption offenses cut to the heart of our democracy, and a more modest increase to the statute of limitations is a reasonable step to help our corruption investigators and prosecutors do their jobs.

 

The bill would also provide significant and much-needed additional funding for public corruption enforcement.  Since September 11, 2001, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) resources have been shifted away from the pursuit of white collar crime to counterterrorism.  FBI Director Mueller has said recently that public corruption is now among the FBI’s top investigative priorities, but a September 2005 report by the Department of Justice Inspector General found that, from 2000 to 2004, there was an overall reduction in public corruption matters handled by the FBI.  More recently, a study by the research group Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse found that the prosecution of all kinds of white collar crimes is down 27 percent since 2000, and official corruption cases have dropped in the same period by 14 percent.  The Wall Street Journalreported recently that the investigation of a Federal elected official stalled for six months because the investigating U.S. Attorney’s Office could not afford to replace the prosecutor who had previously handled the case. 

 

We must reverse this trend and make sure that law enforcement has the tools and the funding it needs to address serious and corrosive crimes occurring right here at home.  Efforts to combat terrorism and official corruption are not mutually exclusive.  A bribed customs official who allows a terrorist to smuggle a dirty bomb into our country, or a corrupt consular officer who illegally supplies U.S. entry visas to would-be terrorists, can cause grave harm to our national security. 

 

This bill goes further by amending several key statutes to broaden their application in corruption and fraud contexts.  This series of fixes will prevent corrupt public officials and their accomplices from evading or defeating prosecution based on existing legal ambiguities.  For example, the bill includes a fix to the gratuities statute that makes clear that public officials may not accept anything of value, other than what is permitted by existing regulations, given to them because of their official position. 

 

The bill also appropriately expands the definition of what it means for a public official to perform an “official act” for the purposes of the bribery statute and closes several other gaps in current law. 

 

Finally, the bill raises the statutory maximum penalties for several laws dealing with official misconduct, including theft of government property and bribery.  These increases reflect the serious and corrosive nature of these crimes, and would harmonize the punishment for these crimes with other similar statutes.

 

This bipartisan bill is supported by the Department of Justice and by a wide array of public interest groups that have long advocated for vigorous enforcement of our fraud and public corruption laws, including the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters, Public Citizen, and U.S. PIRG. 

 

If we are serious about addressing the kinds of egregious misconduct that we have recently witnessed in high-profile public corruption cases, Congress must enact meaningful legislation to give investigators and prosecutors the tools and resources they need to enforce our laws.  Passing last year’s ethics and lobbying reform bill was a step in the right direction.  But we must finish the job by strengthening the criminal law to enable federal investigators and prosecutors to bring those who undermine the public trust to justice.  I am disappointed that Republican objections have prevented the full Senate from passing this critical bill.  I ask those Republicans Senators who are objecting to proceeding to this anti-corruption legislation and to passing it to please reconsider before it is too late.  Let us join together in taking bipartisan action.

 

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