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May 25, 2006
FBI Ramps Up Public-Integrity Investigations

The FBI has added more than 200 agents to their task force on investigations of public corruption, an increase of 50% over 2004, in preparation for the upcoming midterm elections. The Hill reports that an explosion in such cases in the last national election has convinced them to add more staff to focus specifically on election law:

Illegal fundraising schemes appear to have grown in number and sophistication as candidates have needed to raise more and more money to be competitive. Several members of Congress have recently found themselves caught up in fundraising controversies.

In the past year and a half, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has reassigned nearly 200 agents to the problem of public corruption, bringing to 600 the total number of agents working on public-integrity cases.

While the Justice Department’s increased focus on public corruption has been talked about in Washington, the FBI’s elevation of such crimes among its priorities is less known. Even less noticed has been the FBI’s new focus on violations of election law, which for years law-enforcement officials considered minor crimes, lawyers specializing in the field said.

But that is changing as candidates and their supporters have become bolder and more creative in skirting fundraising and election law. Furthermore, legislation Congress passed in 2002 making many election-law violations felonies has given law-enforcement officials greater incentive to investigate and prosecute.

You'd better watch out ... you'd better not lie ... you'd better not sell out, or I'll tell the FBI ...

Seriously, the escalation of these investigations provide some deterrent in the short run, but the longer view is more problematic. Many of these cases will involve the mischaracterization of funds, a problem more based on Byzantine campaign-finance regulation than on true corruption. The cases which have demonstrated the latter -- Randy Cunningham and William Jefferson come to mind here -- have little to do with taking an extra $1,000 in campaign contributions but instead show corruption in the old-fashioned way: personal cash bribes for legislative action.

If the FBI planned to apply more resources in pursuit of that kind of corruption, that would be a tremendous boost for public integrity. According to The Hill's report, however, the additional agents will focus on the felonies and misdemeanors created by the BCRA (McCain-Feingold). This demonstrates the problem of creating an overwhelming regulatory regime in any process; it creates crime where little or no intent to harm is involved. By forcing contributors and politicians to create ever more fanciful corporations with ever more barriers to accountability, the transition and use of the funds becomes so opaque that practically any use appears criminal, and all of it requires forensic accountants to ensure compliance within a labyrinth of laws.

The best solution is the elimination of the regulatory regime altogether and its replacement with instant-disclosure laws. In the age of the Internet, political candidates and their parties have the ability to quickly reveal their donors and the extent of their contributions. That would make those whom the voters select the most accountable for their fundraising and the message their funds produce. We can then eliminate the 501(c)s, the 527s, the PACs, and all of the other artificial creations that obfuscate responsibility and create criminals where they would otherwise not exist. Once that happens, then the FBI can concentrate on real corruption in government instead of becoming the executive branch's version of Price Waterhouse Cooper.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 25, 2006 6:07 AM

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