Saturday, July 25, 2015

FBI seeking tips from the public in crackdown on government corruption

FBI seeking tips from the public in crackdown on government corruption
The Tallahassee Democrat
By Jeff Burlew
Published June 14 , 2011
Tallahassee has become a focal point in the FBI’s crackdown on public corruption.
The FBI in Jacksonville has launched a major initiative seeking the public’s help in identifying government officials who use their office for personal gain. Of particular interest to the FBI is potential fraud involving federal stimulus money.
The agency unveiled the Public Corruption Tip Line (1-888-722-1225) in February and said it would run advertisements in newspapers seeking tips. So far, the FBI has run one advertisement, which appeared on the front page of the Tallahassee Democrat.
Toni Chrabot, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI office in Jacksonville, said the FBI chose to run the ad in Tallahassee because it is the seat of power in Florida.
“Since it’s the capital and the home of Florida’s Legislature and numerous state agencies, any public corruption there has the potential to have consequences on a much broader scale than similar corruption in a smaller town or county,” said Chrabot, who is overseeing the office’s public-corruption program.
The ad ran under the heading, “Who’s representing you?” and had a “pay-to-play” logo with a slash through it. “Dishonest government officials aren’t just wasting your tax dollars,” the ad said. “They’re betraying your trust. Report public corruption to the FBI.”
The FBI made headlines recently after asking the city of Tallahassee for a copy of its purchasing policy and emails involving a federally funded grant for technology programs on the south side. The FBI doesn’t confirm or deny investigations; Chrabot discussed only in broad terms the FBI’s efforts to stamp out government corruption. The Democrat learned of the FBI’s interest in city documents from city officials.
Brad Ashwell, democracy advocate for the Florida Public Interest Research Group, said it’s reassuring that the federal government is using one of its most powerful crime-fighting tools — the FBI — to safeguard against corruption.
“It’s critical that we ensure public funds are used appropriately and effectively,” Ashwell said. “And any time there is fraud or public corruption, that’s a breach of the public trust that is corrosive to our democracy.”
Chrabot said the FBI relies on the public’s help in uncovering public corruption, which often occurs with private-sector accomplices. One reason is the secretive nature of bribes.
“For much of the investigation that the FBI does just in general, we are successful because of the help of the public,” she said. “And that’s true for counter-terrorism investigations, where the public has been so aware and reported suspicious activity. We benefit the same way when a citizen reports what they believe to be suspicious and corrupt activity. We depend on that.”
U.S. Attorney Pamela C. Marsh of the Northern District of Florida said in a written statement that public corruption is the top priority of the office.
“Greed and self-interest have no place in public service, and violations of the law will be thoroughly investigated and prosecuted,” Marsh said. “We look forward to joining with federal law enforcement and members of the concerned public in bringing to justice those who seek to line their own pockets at the expense of the public trust.”
FBI probes bribes, kickbacks
James Casey, special agent in charge of the FBI Jacksonville office, said in a written statement that most public officials are honest.
“But we encourage the public to help us hold accountable those who use their positions for their own enrichment and those contractors who misuse the taxpayers’ money,” Casey said.
Chrabot said some public officials who are motivated by power and greed accept or solicit bribes or receive kickbacks in exchange for official action or inaction.
“We call it quid pro quo — there’s something of value for something of value,” she said. “Historically, kickbacks have been as simple as the hand-to-hand exchange of money. The payment of bribes or kickbacks may take a very sophisticated track through companies, individuals and bank accounts or all three.”
She said the FBI is paying particular attention to fraud involving the $787- billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The FBI said Florida is expected to receive nearly $20 billion in federal stimulus money and that contracts totaling nearly $10 billion have already been awarded.
“It’s a tremendous amount of money,” Chrabot said. “And our responsibility with regard to public corruption and the investigation of public corruption is to ensure that the American public receives what they’re supposed to receive.”
FBI working 3,500 corruption cases
The FBI in Jacksonville oversees offices in 40 Florida counties, from Duval County in the east to Escambia County in the west and Citrus, Sumter and Lake counties in the central part of the state.
Chrabot said more than 50 investigators have been assigned to public corruption in the FBI’s Southeast Region, which encompasses 11 field offices in Washington, D.C.; Richmond, Va.; Norfolk, Va.; Charlotte, N.C.; Columbia, S.C.; Baltimore; Atlanta; Jacksonville; Tampa; Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Nationwide, 750 agents are assigned to public-corruption matters.
The FBI is involved in about 400 pending cases in some stage of investigation or prosecution in the Southeast Region and more than 3,500 pending cases nationally. The cases involve public corruption, fraud against the government and anti-trust matters, Chrabot said.
About 450 people have been charged with public-corruption crimes across the country since Oct. 1, 2010, Chrabot said. There have been more than 430 convictions over the same time period.
Chrabot said the FBI has received valuable information through the tip line and the FBI’s website. She said some tips have immediate value in existing cases, while others could have value in future cases.
“Anything we get, we share,” she said. “It’s one big FBI.”
Public corruption ‘unacceptable’
The FBI has a long history of investigating public corruption. Chrabot recalled the FBI’s ABSCAM investigation, which began in the late 1970s and led to the convictions of a senator and six congressmen caught on video accepting bribes. The operation was named after Abdul Enterprises, a fictitious company set up by the FBI to nab criminals involved in public corruption and organized crime.
In the early 1980s, Operation Greylord, named after wigs British judges wear, led to the indictments of more than 90 judges, lawyers and law-enforcement officers in the Chicago area on charges involving bribery, kickbacks, vote buying and fraud. Most of them were convicted.
In a recent public-corruption probe, the former chairman of the Jacksonville Port Authority, Tony Devaughn Nelson, was found guilty May 20 on 36 charges, including bribery and money laundering. Nelson is facing 20 years in prison.
Chrabot said public corruption is not a “victimless crime.”
“Public corruption is so far-reaching because it is a breach of the public trust,” she said. “Citizens should think it unacceptable, and they should report it if they have knowledge of it because it does affect them. The American public deserves honest services from public officials, and they have the right to expect it.”

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