What’s the harm with public officials amending laws?

To view the video transcript in English, French, and Spanish – click here [PDF 215 kB]

In the video, a government official complains about a high level of public transparency as she looks to cover up illegitimate spending and conflicts of interest. Antoinette Bacon, a white-collar-crime coordinator at the Executive Office for United States Attorneys, said the scenario is similar to many other cases she has seen where officials justify bending the rules because they feel the regulations are too strict.
Without transparency in government, the public cannot find out if their officials are acting for the right reasons or the wrong reasons, and that erodes their faith in government, regardless of whether the officials are actually corrupt.

“When you have transparency, people can make their own judgements and determinations,” Bacon said. They can find out who an official met with, where, and how many times, and compare that information with what the official has been voting on or been involved with. “It might be innocent and a lot of times it is innocent. But sometimes it’s not. And just by having that awareness, people can make their own judgements or can look into it further.”

In addition to requiring that public officials be open about their activities, some governments also require their officials to disclose any substantial gifts they receive and where they came from. For example, one local jurisdiction may require officials to report gifts valued at over $500, while another may simply forbid their officials from accepting anything worth more than $100.

“The laws can’t be so harsh that people can’t take a Christmas gift from their sister, or if you have a bottle of water at a business meeting you have to fill out 40 forms. That’s one extreme,” Bacon said. “But the other extreme is that the public should have the right to know if a public official just got a brand-new yacht, and was also voting on legislation the same day, from the person who benefited from that legislation.”

Corrupt officials often draw attention to themselves by living beyond their means. They may be driving a new car or living in a large house that doesn’t appear to be affordable on their salary. They may be eating at a nice restaurant every night, taking expensive vacations or paying for large purchases in cash. But another official could be doing the same types of activities for legitimate reasons. Without government transparency, it’s hard to tell.

“There has to be that balance and having enough transparency that the public can be watchful and can be informed and decide whether or not it crossed a legal line, [or] whether or not it crossed an ethical line,” Bacon said.

Ask yourself: Do you know what your government’s policy is on accepting gifts?

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