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Tom DeLay. Randy “Duke” Cunningham. Bob Ney. Jack Abramoff. High-profile public corruption investigations made a roaring comeback in 2005, and recent events suggest that 2006 is going to be filled with more investigations, prosecutions, pleas, and trials of high-ranking government officials than we’ve seen in quite awhile. The lesson — for politicians and the rest of us — is that public corruption prosecutions never really disappear. At most, they just go underground for a while. For several years we heard scarcely a word about public corruption cases. And that was a welcome relief. By the time the Starr Report made it to the overstock table at Barnes & Noble, Americans were overwhelmingly suffering from public corruption fatigue. The seemingly endless investigations during the Clinton administration by special prosecutors, who looked into everything from Whitewater to pork bellies to Monica Lewinsky’s infamous blue dress, eventually sparked a public and political backlash. Congress allowed the independent counsel statute to lapse, and Americans seemed to lose their appetites for these cases. We all, it seemed, needed a break from the politics of personal destruction and the enormous prosecutorial apparatus that accompanied it. Two seismic events in late 2001, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the sudden collapse of Enron Corp., led federal prosecutors and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to direct their attention to investigating and prosecuting terrorism and corporate corruption cases. Congress responded to these new threats by passing the USA Patriot Act and the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, which gave prosecutors and investigators new tools and a clear mandate to combat terrorism and corporate malfeasance. The Justice Department and the FBI answered with an unprecedented surge of activity in these areas, and public corruption prosecutions were left relatively dormant.
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Until this year, that is. In 2005 public corruption emerged from hibernation and became, once again, a major focus of investigators across the country. After several years of recuperation, Americans apparently have recovered from their public corruption fatigue, and prosecutors seem more confident that they can investigate and try these cases without a backlash from the public, the media, or, most important, jurors. In addition, U.S. attorney’s offices and FBI field offices have gained several years of experience in prosecuting the latest terrorism and economic-crime cases. Their investigations have become more focused and efficient, thereby freeing up resources for other work. Certainly, terrorism and corporate corruption cases are not going away anytime soon. The stakes are too high. Too many resources — not only at the Justice Department, but also at the Department of Homeland Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and numerous other federal agencies — have been committed to these efforts. And public interest remains steadfast. But in 2006 it appears that public corruption will join terrorism and corporate corruption at the top of prosecutors’ priority lists. Indeed, two guilty pleas in late November set the stage for even more upheaval in courtrooms and on Capitol Hill in the new year. Rep. Cunningham (R-Calif.) pleaded guilty to charges that he took more than $2.4 million in bribes to steer military contracts to friendly contractors, while Michael Scanlon, a former aide to Rep. DeLay (R-Texas), admitted to bilking several Indian tribes of more than $80 million and to providing trips, meals, entertainment, and campaign contributions in exchange for political favors from members of Congress, including Rep. Ney (R-Ohio). Meanwhile, DeLay himself is under indictment in Texas. Significantly, both Cunningham and Scanlon agreed to assist in the investigation and prosecution of others. Scanlon’s cooperation, in particular, is likely to have widespread ramifications, as it puts additional pressure on his business associate, indicted lobbyist Abramoff, and provides a critical inside witness in an investigation that is said to involve at least a half-dozen lawmakers already. Finally, we cannot ignore the fact that 2006 is an election year. Democratic leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada have already made the point in news briefings and interviews that they intend to focus public attention on these cases in the upcoming campaigns. If history is any guide, this will fuel renewed media interest in public corruption, which will embolden law enforcement officials to pursue such cases even more vigorously. If prosecutors can leverage the Cunningham and Scanlon guilty pleas into more convictions in the coming months, high-profile public corruption cases will be back for far more than just a limited engagement.

Michael N. Levy heads the white collar/investigations and enforcement practice at McKee Nelson in Washington, D.C. He previously prosecuted public corruption cases as an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.

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