There is an old axiom often applied to those with political ambitions: Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. In this case, the term corruption means the abuse of a public office for personal gain or other illegal or immoral benefit. Political corruption is a recognized criminal offense, along with bribery, extortion, and embezzlement – three illegal acts often associated with corruption in office. Some forms of corruption may escape legal notice, such as the hiring of relatives for key positions, but they may not escape the scrutiny of voters on Election Day.
Whenever a person accepts a political appointment or wins election to an office, he or she must take an oath to uphold the public trust. While this may sound noble on paper, enforcement of this oath can prove problematic. Very few political candidates successfully reach office without making a few promises along the way. Many of these campaign promises are harmless, such as sponsoring a bill or lobbying for more funding for schools. Other promises, however, may come closer to crossing an ethical line, such as hiring relatives or awarding government contracts to influential contributors.
Political corruption has been a fact of life for thousands of years, beginning with the first attempts at a democratic form of government in ancient Greece and Rome. Almost all of these countries’ political representatives were from the wealthier class, which inevitably led to a division between the influential haves and the virtually powerless have-nots. The seeds of political corruption were planted as soon as the senators and other political leaders realized that power and wealth could be equals. Political corruption often begins with favoritism towards those with wealth and influence.
In the modern sense of the term, political corruption is a cancer on the integrity of a governmental body. Very few public officials begin their careers with the intention of becoming corrupt, but some succumb to a sinister form of peer pressure over time. Being placed in a position of significant political power can be overwhelming, and the temptation to bend or break rules for a perceived ‘greater good’ is always present
There are a few experienced politicians, however, for whom political corruption is a natural state of being. History is filled with examples of corrupt public officials, such as New York City’s Boss Tweed and his political cronies at Tammany Hall during the late 19th century. Charges ranging from bribery and graft to nepotism, racketeering and fraud were all leveled at Tweed’s administration, but it was Tweed’s skills in political corruption that kept law enforcement at bay for years. A number of judges and law enforcement officers were already on Boss Tweed’s secret payroll. Political corruption may always remain a concern for democratic governments, but there are a number of independent checks and balances that can root out corruption before it affects the integrity of the political body as a whole.