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How could publicly accessible information proving that a public figure is corrupt go undetected for at least a year?

Assume that the public figure is a moderately noteworthy politician (equivalent to a federal Representative or Senator in the United States). This scenario is set in a democracy with full freedom of the press with 2021 level technology.

In addition, are there any real world examples of this scenario actually occurring?

EDIT: Several people have cited examples of legally allowed lobbying as real world examples. I'm talking about illegal corruption that could result in convictions.

EDIT 2: The government must not be the one to uncover the incident. A group of journalists uncover the records.

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    $\begingroup$ I have the feeling that the last sentence will start a quarrel between the supporters and opposers of whoever will be reported as actual example... $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    May 31 at 3:52
  • $\begingroup$ Remember that resignation or paying a court fine is not an admission of guilt. $\endgroup$ May 31 at 4:54
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    $\begingroup$ Undetected? nope. IGNORED, yes. very much so. Example, take a look at Schabir Shaik and Zuma corruption.. ewn.co.za/Topic/Schabir-Shaik IN 1999, Shaik was found guilty of bribing Mr. Zuma, and sent to jail for it. ONLY NOW is Zuma being tried for accepting the bribes. In the meanwhile, even with the proven corruption case against him, he got to be elected president. $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    May 31 at 10:18
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    $\begingroup$ The real world doesn't work the same way as an ethics course in college. Whistle blowing in the real world has consequences, and the fact that the consequences might also be illegal doesn't mean they won't happen. In the worst case scenario, having "was unlawfully killed" written on your tombstone doesn't mean you aren't dead. $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    May 31 at 12:57
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    $\begingroup$ The other side is to use a lot of legal resources to delay justice. See Ken Paxton in Texas. A lot of Texas politics is corrupt, but nobody is looking. See the case where a CEO handed out $10,000 checks on the floor of the state legislature to make a vote go the way he wanted. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    May 31 at 14:03

12 Answers 12

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What? You mean Randall "Duke" Cunningham?

In June 2005, a story appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune by Marcus Stern and Jerry Kammer, who would later receive a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting. The story revealed that a defense contractor, Mitchell Wade, founder of the defense contracting firm MZM Inc. (since renamed Athena Innovative Solutions Inc. and later acquired by CACI), bought Cunningham's house in Del Mar in 2003 for 1,675,000 USD. A month later, Wade placed it back on the market where it remained unsold for eight months until the price was reduced to 975,000 USD. Cunningham was a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee at the time. Soon after the purchase, Wade's company began to receive tens of millions of dollars worth of defense and intelligence contracts. Cunningham claimed the deal was legitimate, adding, "I feel very confident that I haven't done anything wrong."[23]

On November 28, 2005, Cunningham pleaded guilty to tax evasion, conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud and wire fraud in federal court in San Diego. Among the many bribes Cunningham admitted receiving was the sale of his home in Del Mar at an inflated price, the free use of the yacht "Duke Stir," a used Rolls-Royce, antique furniture, Persian rugs, jewelry, and a $2,000 contribution for his daughter's college graduation party.[35] Cunningham's attorney, Mark Holscher, later said that the government's evidence was so overwhelming that he had no choice but to recommend a guilty plea.[36] With the plea bargain, Cunningham faced a maximum of 10 years; had he fought the charges, Cunningham risked spending the rest of his life in prison.

-all from Wikipedia.

The house sale was public, the contracts were public, and everyone's positions were public. It would have taken about the same amount of time to investigate with modern computers.

There are basically two ways to do what you are talking about:

  1. The government has not discovered the corruption, because the government is the one doing the corruption.

The people who internally review the evidence for traces of corruption are either paid off or part of the corruption. Outside forces can discover the corruption, but that takes time and effort most people can't put into it. Yes, you can sort through thousands of documents faster than you could in the 90s. But now the clerks can make millions of more documents that clog up your filters.

  1. The government has not discovered the corruption because the money has been properly laundered.

There is a reason government contract negotiators are so hesitant to accept gifts.People can use gifts to funnel money to government officials in exchange for government contracts. Depending on the situation a gift of 25 dollars might be unethical to accept. Therefore, if someone is doing bribery it is likely through a very hard to find channel, going through shell companies, stock options, and favors for favors. The FBI is pretty vigilant, mostly, but sometimes journalists beat them to the punch. Also, if you are in situation 1 the FBI won't make a difference.

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    $\begingroup$ Fundamentally, this is an example of acts which are individually fine, but the combination reveals a problem. $\endgroup$ Jun 2 at 3:50
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No one tried to connect the dots

Consider following scenario:

  • Senator A had sponsored a certain bill;
  • This bill directly led to a company B signing a very lucrative government contract;
  • Company B has significant business with company C which provides some kind of consulting to Company B;
  • Senator A has controlling stake in Company C;

Every link of this chain is potentially known to the public, but unless someone is specifically looking, the whole chain is not visible to anyone;

No one was looking

Consider following scenario:

  • Senator A had long been dogged by his alleged association with the mob, but he steadfastly denied those allegations;
  • Joe Nobody had once visited a restaurant, made a selfie and put it in his Facebook account;
  • Little did Joe know that in the background he captured senator A talking to a prominent mob boss;

The evidence was in the plain sight for quite some time, but no one had thought to look for it in that particular place.

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    $\begingroup$ Your first example is still too close: someone would probably notice it. What you'd want is Senator A sponsoring the bill, B gets the contract, C gets paid a lot of money for consulting by B, the vice-president of C sold Senator A some property that was oddly undervalued, but hey, it turns out the Senator now owns a chunk of land that a completely unrelated (and innocent) company that had nothing to do with any of this wants to buy for a new facility, which C knew beforehand. $\endgroup$ May 31 at 15:46
  • $\begingroup$ "No one was looking" - this could also be the case if it were part of a large data leak that included data from figures that were much more prominent at the time, it is deep in some mostly-unimportant public documents or files or it is part of some archive that no-one has thought to search through before for details about this figure (e.g. local newspapers from 30 years ago). There is simply too much public data on the internet, never mind elsewhere, to look through all of it. $\endgroup$
    – NotThatGuy
    May 31 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Keith Morrison - all depends on how closely people are looking. The more people looking, the longer the corruption chain :) $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jun 1 at 16:38
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I'm surprised nobody has done this yet...

Mr Prosser: But, Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.
Arthur: Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them had you? I mean like actually telling anybody or anything.
Mr Prosser: But the plans were on display…
Arthur: On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.
Mr Prosser: That’s the display department.
Arthur: With a torch.
Mr Prosser: The lights had probably gone out.
Arthur: So had the stairs.
Mr Prosser: But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?
Arthur: Yes yes I did. It was on display at the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying beware of the leopard.

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  • $\begingroup$ I don't consider this publicly accessible information as in the context of the question. $\endgroup$
    – Nzall
    Jun 1 at 14:54
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    $\begingroup$ It is though. Real life examples of this exist, and the question doesn’t say the info has to be easy to find. $\endgroup$ Jun 1 at 19:09
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    $\begingroup$ @CharlieHershberger "Real life examples of this exist" ... and records of these examples can be found in the display department. $\endgroup$
    – Ray
    Jun 2 at 17:16
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The same public figure flooded the media with other information that distracted or obscured the truth

If the corruption requires at least some dot-connecting to uncover, real world politicians employ what's called the 'dead cat' method: do something so outrageous that everyone's attention is diverted away from the really dangerous stuff to something that's just humiliating or offensive.

Your public figure could also hire journalists to write obvious hit pieces and slander against themselves, so the public won't believe the real corruption if it is reported on. Claim fake news ad nauseum.

It's only after the smokescreen stories are disproved one by one, that the truth can be discovered and effectively brought to public attention.

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    $\begingroup$ There is a fun story about Boris Johnson making up anecdotes using keywords that would previously lead to embarrassing results if used along his name in a google search. For instance, he was involved in several scandals / bad stories involving buses; then in an interview, he claimed that he spent his free time painting bus models. Now it's much harder to come across the embarrassing bus stories on google. wired.co.uk/article/boris-johnson-model-google-news parall.ax/blog/view/3301/… $\endgroup$
    – Stef
    May 31 at 16:41
  • $\begingroup$ You do run the risk of your own staff getting fed up, of course: npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/08/07/430364515/… $\endgroup$
    – abought
    Jun 1 at 18:54
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The reports work for an outlet that mostly publishes made up stuff.

space tramps weekly world news

The snake eating the man alive was true. People don't check stuff that comes from a source like this. Sources like this are interested in things that are spectacular and wild. In your story, the corruption in question is not run of the mill stuff - it is wacky, involving Imperial Russian gold, Rhodesian separatists, offshore laboratories, snakes, Bowie, and more. But all true and ultimately verifiable. Even when the story is run by an unorthodox Unabomberesque journalist who works for this publication, it is still not checked by the government for a long time. The girlfriend of this journalist's brother hears something about it and prompts a second investigation.

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There's always the classic: A distraction.

A very common distraction is a war. You might get caught with your hand in the cookie jar? Make the tail wag the dog and start a war with some country nobody likes but that is not really strong enough to have a chance of beating your country. This is most appropriate (if that's the word) when the corruption involved bribes etc. with the defense industry. Hey, you can probably get a lot more bribes by pushing contracts to build war stuff.

Another frequent distraction is a scandal about somebody else. Especially somebody who is already controversial for some reason. Even if you have to plant the evidence with your own sweaty hands. Hey, you are on the committee for the FDA? You can get some cool drugs and plant them on your enemy, then conveniently leak some juicy info to the media. Hey, your enemy has ties to a certain well known family with rumors of something shady? Plant evidence that implicates them in that exact thing. You can fancy it up by making the evidence massively obviously false so that the scandal turns around and becomes a mystery of who did the evidence planting. Which will spiral into conspiracy theories that the target planted the evidence himself to make it look like he is a victim.

A subtle and risky gambit is to leak information about yourself in order to create a scandal that you believe you can weather. If everybody believes you failed to evade taxes, and so owe the government a big stack of cash in fines and penalties, maybe they won't dig for anything else. "He's a tax cheat not a murderer." Or to pull the stunt your enemy gets accused of in the previous paragraph, and leak stupidly obviously fake evidence of the actual scandal. "Oh, that was disproved, forget about it."

If you put enough back-spin on the distraction, you can abscond. You can be in a country that has no extradition with your home country, with the cash, before anybody realizes what is going on.

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Undetected is a relative term.

In an instance of corruption, at the very least the corrupt person knows. And whoever they were corrupt in favour of. Now, say that they are one step removed from being directly bribed. Say for example their father owmed a shop-building company, and they removed an embargo on steel from a country that sold it cheap. Plenty of people can know about that, they were even publicly voting on it. But, how likely is this story to make it to the front page? If they're family is rich, and friendly with the owners of all the major media companies it might not get published at all. To all people save a rounding error it goes undetected, despite technically being public knowledge.

Or for a really juicy one, say your cabinet gets briefed on a foreign virus. Then everyone at that meeting sells stocks in things like travel, buys stocks in things like medical companies. Before the information about the virus goes public. Is this legal? Possibly. Might be insider trading, might technically be something else. The thing is, it can only be noticed a good while after it occurred, meaning it's never fresh news, so probably won't be published, even before you consider some good relations with the owners of the press.

Tl;dr be friends with the people who own the mainstream press and they won't publish until they absolutely have to, letting you keep almost everyone who doesn't personally research it or have involvement be unaware.

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This kind of situation is often held up as a consequence of the death of local media. There's less time for journalists to cover court cases, pour over public records and do in-depth investigations that may or may not pan out.

There's a recent case in my municipality where corruption related to building and planning permits recently led to several people being sentenced to jail time. This story was broken by the local newspaper, but only after a regular citizen who suspected something fishy was going on had spent dozens, if not hundreds of hours pouring over public records connecting the dots.

In your case, the corruption by the national-level politician could still be at a local level, quietly enriching him and setting him up for a nice retirement once he leaves congress.

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Not naming names for obvious reasons, but the following examples are taken from real life:

  • The checks and balances in this country are set in this way: the Senate is the only public body constitutionally allowed to evict a judge from the Supreme Court. No criminal investigation can be carried out against the Senate or its members by any agency without explicit permission from the Supreme Court. There you go. What happens when both of them get corrupted?

  • High Profile Politician is friends with the owners of some of the country's widest circulation newspaper and tv channels. Small newspapers might call out the corruption, but the big ones will drown the news with other irrelevant news or outright call it fake news.

  • A journalist publishes a scandalous story involving a group of high-profile politicians. A few days before testifying in court, he dies in a weird car accident. In the following weeks, all possible witnesses (including the favorite candidate to win the next presidential elections) die or disappear, one by one. The case goes cold and no other journalist wants to touch the story.

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It could be possible. The way I'm thinking of is having it so that the public figure, A, pulls some strings so that another, even more public figure, B, is under a big scandal, C. Since C is occurring, not many would pay attention if A did action D, thus stopping scandal E from occurring. Then, after C blows over, people won't be too inclined to look for if A did D, which means at worst for A that E would occur later.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'd say, this strategy could make things very much worse, remember Watergate's attempted cover-up - the cover-up became the scandal, perhaps bigger than the original act. $\endgroup$ Jun 1 at 17:16
  • $\begingroup$ Yes. However, you will recall that the question was that it would go unnoticed for at least a year. It would be the sort of thing a politician might try though (see Watergate) $\endgroup$
    – 4D4850
    Jun 1 at 17:19
  • $\begingroup$ That's fair, and why I didn't down-vote the answer. By the way, welcome to the site ;) $\endgroup$ Jun 1 at 17:25
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you. I'm not very experienced in world building itself, but I do have experience with some of the stuff needed to answer some of the questions. I do think worldbuilding would be fun though. $\endgroup$
    – 4D4850
    Jun 1 at 17:30
  • $\begingroup$ Your expertise is most welcome (and your sense of fun). $\endgroup$ Jun 1 at 17:33
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If it is not too much

Only the worst and most explicit cases of corruption draw public attention.

If the corrupt public official has the self-control to do most of their work at acceptable quality and only SOME of it is affected by bribes, no one will look twice.

On the other hand, the human nature being what it is, the easy monetary inflow gradually changes one's priorities, as well as risk tolerance. In most cases, as the time passes, the corrupt official imposes increasing pressure at their fellow officials, their bribing clients and their non-bribing clients alike. At some point the corruptioneer's behavior is unacceptable for a great number of people and attracts attention.

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The amount of public accessible information in the world is staggering. So I think it's natural that some/a lot/the majority of public accessible information will not get attention from anyone. Even if it concerns a relatively important person.

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