Public Perception of Corruption Predicts Well-Being

Source: Debbie Peterson/heyjasperai

Jiazheng Ma, Bin Guo, and Yanghang Yu released new findings in their report, “Perception of Official Corruption, Satisfaction With Government Performance, and Subjective Wellbeing—An Empirical Study From China.”

The authors find that government performance is an important predictor of well-being, such that, when people trust the government, their sense of well-being improves, and when they perceive corruption, well-being declines.

Over the same period, however, traditional psychological theories have not provided solutions that successfully reduce corruption. Concerned that international attempts to curb corruption are failing, Dr. Kendra Dupuy, a political scientist, and Siri Neset, a political psychologist, turned to cognitive psychology studies for effective solutions. They reviewed recent research and propose suggestions supported by the research in their report, “The Cognitive Psychology of Corruption; Micro-level Explanations for Unethical Behavior.”

They find that cognitive studies concur that people are more likely to act corruptly when they perceive that corruption only causes indirect harm. Their research suggests that corruption decreases with information—when the crime of corruption is defined and when potential perpetrators and the public are informed about the consequences for victims and the punishment of perpetrators.

What Is Corruption?

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime explains, “The essence of the crime of corruption is that something of value is exchanged for benefits from political or economic actors.”

In all forms of corruption, including embezzlement, someone entrusted with something valuable takes it or routes it to a third party at the expense of others. It is both a betrayal and a theft. Patronage (the use of state resources to reward electoral support), nepotism (preferential treatment of relatives), cronyism (awarding jobs and advantages to friends or colleagues), and sextortion (the demand for sexual favors as payment) undermine independent or democratically representative decision-making and merit-based staffing. Bribery and extortion involve the exchange of political and economic power. Corrupt public officials block transparency, accountability, and the rule of law, causing citizen frustration, disengagement, polarization, and conflict.

When corruption is allowed to continue, it leads to systemic corruption. which flourishes when communities become so frustrated by or used to corruption that they cease to oversee the work of their elected representatives.

The Consequences of Corruption

The following February 2023 FBI accounts highlight the personal consequences of corruption.

The City of Flordell Hills, Missouri, is six blocks square, with an annual budget of $400,000 and 800 residents, the majority of whom live below the poverty level. From 2016 to 2022 the city clerk and assistant city clerk forged the signatures of the mayor and treasurer and wrote themselves 614 city checks, stealing $647,576 from the community.

The women cashed some checks; made wire transfers for rent for their shared home, entertainment, federal taxes, and bills at restaurants and stores; and deposited other checks into their personal bank accounts, using the money for personal expenses and gambling.

KSDK, the local TV station said some of the stolen funds were for COVID relief and quoted residents who said streets hadn’t been repaired, streetlights needed for safety went uninstalled, and some public employees went without pay. Residents said the money could have helped flood victims and growing youth addiction problems. Until the funds are replaced, the citizens will go without street repairs and other public services. The cost of streets and lighting will continue to inflate. If the criminals don’t pay up, taxes will have to be levied to cover costs, thus further reducing the disposable income and quality of life of the residents.

The women will be sentenced for two felonies each and up to 20 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, or both. They will be required to repay the money.

In Washington, a drainage district commissioner and his wife stole $468,165 of property taxes allocated for flood control. For 35 years, the commissioner estimated drainage maintenance costs for the county auditor to set and assess taxes, then authorized payment to contractors to maintain the system.

In 2012, the commissioner’s wife set up a joint business bank account with the commissioner’s son soon after he was out of high school. The commissioner and his wife forged his son’s and a second drainage commissioner’s signatures on records and checks. Over the next six years, the district paid the “business” for fictional drainage ditch maintenance. The couple then used the “business” account to pay for hay, mortgages, and property taxes; transferred money to their other accounts; and withdrew more than $68,000 in cash.

Rationalization Essential Reads

When the couple discovered they were under investigation, they funneled tax dollars through a different company, also billing from that company for drainage maintenance. Those funds went directly to the commissioner or his dairy farm. In court, the commissioner’s son testified that he did not perform any drainage ditch work between 2012 and 2017. The new commissioner testified that he saw no work done on the ditches during that time, and when he started work, it was clear that little maintenance was done for years.

Several agencies cooperated in the FBI investigation including the City Attorney, the State Auditor’s Office, the IRS Criminal Investigation, the Police Department, the County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The couple “treated taxpayer money as if it was their own,” said U.S. Attorney Nick Brown. “They not only cheated taxpayers out of money, but they also increased the risk of flooding.”

“Today, the Commissioner who took the majority of the district’s budget for years for his own gain is being held accountable for his lengthy public corruption,” said Richard A. Collodi, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Seattle Field Office. “Not only did he betray the public’s trust, but he also involved others in the fraud.” The couple was sentenced to 30 months in prison and three years of supervised release for felonies including forgery. The forgeries carry a mandatory two-year sentence that must run consecutive to other sentences. A friend who helped with the fraud now also has a federal felony conviction for repeatedly lying to the FBI.

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