Peter J. Ainsworth: We are Trying to Tackle Corruption at Every Level

Corruption has several different manifestations in the U.S. Both high level and low level corruption can be found here. Mr. Peter J. Ainsworth, Senior Anti-Corruption Counsel at U.S. Department of Justice, Criminal Division, says that throughout the United States low level corruption is present. Fight against corruption and the American experience are discussed in the interview below.

Mr. Ainsworth, what does corruption look like in the U.S.? I mean how does it manifest itself in social and political life?

Well, certainly we have corruption in the Unites States and I think I’ve answered that question the last time I was here… But, you know, it really is found at all different levels. Throughout the United States we have low level corruption. Sometimes traffic police and others who are extorting money and otherwise taking bribes all the way up to high level corruption and legislators, etc. who have engaged in active corruption.

The important part is that we are trying to tackle the problem at every level. So it’s not just handling cases against the lower levels of society and ignoring the corruption above. It’s an attempt to attack the problems throughout the layers of government.

OK. I got it. You partially answered the question. But what about practical steps? What does the law enforcement in the U.S. do to tackle corruption?

Well, you know, after Watergate we put lots of different reforms into place. We created many of things that your own government is now struggling with. We created financial disclosure forms, we instituted a regimen of ethics training and on the preventive side we took some major steps, civil service reform to make sure that the Watergate Scandal didn’t happen again.

The enforcement side, which is what prosecutors and the FBI agency that we work with, are on typically, we aggressively but fairly follow allegations and pursue allegations of crime both at the lower level, as I said, and the upper level. The goal here is to enforce the laws equally from the man who sweeps the streets up to the top of the country and the presidents.

There’s a famous TV series called House of Cards, where this the fictional character Frank Underwood receives very lavish gifts and expensive treats in restaurants on a regular basis. In my opinion, in real life such behavior would have criminal consequences in the U.S., wouldn’t it? How are donations and treats of such kind regulated in the U.S. legislation?

I’ve seen House of Cards. I’m not prepared to say that’s an accurate depiction of politics in America. But I will answer your question with real life examples and not fictional TV shows. The Jack Abromoff case which I know you’ve already discovered and we have discussed already, was very much about lavish gifts, but often not cash in brown paper bags. It was, instead, large dinners with many many people and Red Sox, I’m sorry, Redskins tickets, which are very expensive, a whole box to the “Caps” game.

So, you know, bribes come in many shapes and sizes. But it’s important for the public to understand that it doesn’t have to be small bills in a brown paper bag. And so if we can prove that lavish gifts, trips to faraway places, or large dinners for many people, were given with the intents to receive an official act, then it is a bribe, under our laws and under your laws…

Mr. Ainsworth, in your interviews and seminars you often talk about the Watergate scandal in your interviews and seminars. How did it contribute to the law enforcement system and what are the lessons learned?

Well, I think it’s a fascinating story, but it also is a wonderful story for countries like Armenia and others who have only recently turned towards democracy as a form of governance, because it’s a story of corruption that went awry but also the good part, the positive part of it is it’s a story of reforms that were instituted once we finished with the scandal portion. And so much of our law enforcement mechanism, including the creation of my office, happened after Watergate and many of the preventive measures that were taken also, you know, were put into place after Watergate.

I know we don’t have time to get into the scandal itself, but I think there was an understanding after the scandal after the dust settled that we needed to do some work to make sure that the laws were enforced in an equal manner and that it was evidence, the facts and the law, that we’d made these determinations on not political considerations.

As I was preparing for this interview, I studied some criminal cases prosecuted by you. Could you please tell me about two of them? The first one is lobbyist Jack Abromoff’s case. You’ve already touched upon it in answering one of my previous questions. So, if you want you can skip it. The case of the former U.S. Federal Judge Robert Frederick Collins is particularly interesting. This is a huge bribery case involving drugs. Please tell us more about it.

Judge Collins was a big bribery case. It happened in New Orleans. Yes, it was a challenging case. Federal judge is a very important person in the United States. This judge was convicted of taking bribes from defendants who appeared before him. It was a case that illustrated the importance of having a mechanism where you could gain the cooperation of someone who is facing drug charges and conduct an investigation using his cooperation and then still punish him afterwards, after the judge have been brought to justice.

So I guess the practical inspiration I would tease out of that case within the context of Armenians, these are the things I think need to be worked on: The UN Convention against Corruption requires every nation that ratifies, Armenia has ratified, to come up with a mechanism. It is invaluable in the United States, the ability to gain cooperation of someone who then can work with law enforcement.

Interview by Gevorg Tosunyan