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December 04, 2012

Alleged Corruption in Washington is a Teaching Moment for Democracies

by Brian Padden

A number of recent investigations into alleged corruption by city officials in Washington, D.C. may get publicity because it's happening in the capital city of one of the world’s largest democracies.  But local lawmakers and advocates for good governance say the city, while not perfect, is not awash in graft and fraud. 
 
Last year, Washington D.C.'s mayor Vincent Gray made headlines, when he was arrested for protesting the city's federal district status that denies residents Congressional representation.  But when three of his senior aides and two city council members pleaded guilty to felonies for financial wrongdoing, that made even bigger headlines. 
 
For advocates of good governance, it's embarrassing that scandals have erupted just three blocks from the White House.  But it also shows that not even advanced democracies are perfect.
 
Bill Buzenberg with the Center for Public Integrity trains journalists from around the world to hold public officials accountable.
 
“This exists here. It exists in other countries, and I think in some ways the journalists I talk to are always amazed that, so this is an issue everywhere, and transparency is an issue everywhere, and holding politicians to account is important for citizens everywhere," he said. 
 
The highly-publicized arrest in 1990 of then-Mayor Marion Barry for purchasing and smoking crack cocaine came to symbolize for many the excess and corruption in Washington's city government.
 
But D.C. City Council member David Catania says there have been relatively few corruption cases in the last decade, and their prosecution is proof that the rule of law is working.  
 
“In the last year we’ve had one member incarcerated, and another member on probation, essentially house arrest and an ongoing investigation into the mayor of the city.  And so I think this is going to be a great lesson for next generation of politicians," he said. 
 
Catania does say Washington may be more vulnerable to corruption because the Democratic Party dominates local politics.  
 
“When you have a one-party system essentially, whether it be a Democratic or Republican one-party system there isn’t the watchdog, the internal kind of check and balance that you have through competition that might exist in a rigorous two-party system. I think that definitely doesn’t help," he said. 
 
Catania says while more independent oversight and transparency is needed, Washington D.C. is no better or worse than any other major city in the U.S..