Corruption doesn’t happen by accident. Here’s a rundown of tools used worldwide by corrupt leaders.

  • Patronage and its siblings, nepotism and cronyism. Government leaders appoint loyalists and relatives to posts without requiring them to have the experience and qualifications needed to perform the job competently. Patronage employees also often work on government time or resources to ensure their patron or patroness gets re-elected. The result is bureaucracies that exist solely to stay in power, not serve the public good.
  • Secrecy, one of the most valuable tools of a corrupt government. In the U.S., in spite of decades-old state and federal laws that mandate government openness, corrupt officials still try to hide their meetings and communications with lobbyists and others who influence their decisions. Lack of transparency is the canary in the coal mine signaling government corruption.
  • Attacking and even shutting down a free press. The No. 1 enemy of a corrupt ruler is a free and unfettered press. That is why you’ll see authoritarian rulers in places like China, North Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East and Russia — go to great lengths to stop journalists from doing their work.For example, China this month sentenced a 71-year-old reporter to seven years in prison, according to the Los Angeles Times, because she obtained an internal Communist Party document and leaked it to a U.S. based news organization. The document she got, the Times said, “urged tighter ideological control over Chinese society and warned against promoting judicial independence, media freedom and civil society.”
  • Cash, gifts or assets handed or promised to a government official in exchange for an official favor, like a vote, or for using his or her influence to benefit the briber.
  • Contracting/procurement. It’s a universal practice of corrupt government officials. Make sure government contracts or other payments go to supporters, even if others are more qualified to do the work.
  • Financial accountability. Corrupt governments fear exposure and one way to prevent it is to falsify, minimize or simply not allow strong financial audits.
  • Election fraud. Rigged elections, which unfortunately are commonplace throughout the world, undermine the foundation of democracy. Orange County has acted to combat its own election abuses. For example, then-GOP Assemblyman Curt Pringle and the Republican Party paid a $400,000 federal court settlement after they stationed guards at 20 Santa Ana polling places in 1988 in what those who filed suit alleged was an attempt to intimidate Hispanic voters. Eight years later, former Pringle aide and current county executive Mark Denny was one of three GOP workers convicted of election fraud as part of a scheme to manipulate an Assembly election by illegally circulating nominating petitions for a decoy candidate.
  • One-sided justice. Corrupt officials everywhere use law enforcement to go after political foes but protect—or simply don’t prosecute—their supporters or those who are friends of their allies. In some cases, they avoid enforcing the law against their backers by simply not equipping their offices with professionals who are good enough at their jobs to prosecute political crimes. In that case, even if they are forced to bring charges against a supporter, there is little likelihood of a conviction.
  • Keeping voters at a distance. The rise of professional political consultants over the past half-century has made it easier for corrupt politicians to get elected and re-elected because direct mail and other campaign tools allow them to avoid personal contact with voters. Officials truly interested in representing their constituents, meet face-to-face and listen to small groups representing a range of views. Sarah Chayes, in “Thieves of State, Why Corruption Threatens Global Security,” emphasizes the importance of all government leaders holding such small group meetings. Among other things, it reduces the ability of unethical aides to filter information that reaches the top leaders. And it gives leaders accurate information about public concerns.
  • Deliberately running yes-men—and now women—for office. Behind-the-scenes power brokers keep control by seeking out and running women and men who will take orders. Even better, finding candidates who will do what they believe their benefactors want without being told. That includes elected women and men who bully those around them or only think of government as a way to make themselves important, as well as financially better off.

Resources for government corruption information:

You can contact Tracy Wood at

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *