Researchers: Political corruption in Prince George's is cyclical

Former Prince George's County Council member Leslie Johnson was sentenced to a year and one day in prison Friday, Dec. 9 on charges of tampering with evidence three days after her husband, former County Executive Jack Johnson, was sentenced to 87 months and other penalties for corruption. Area residents are not surprised.

"Politics is a corrupt game," said Jerome McNeil of Prince George's, who was present at Jack Johnson's sentencing. "In order to be a politician, you have to be corrupt."

But researchers say that sometimes the idea that politics is supposed to be corrupt helps fuel corruption, so much so that corruption almost becomes predictable. A couple of university professors have it down to a set of formulas.

John Duffy, an economics professor at the University of Pittsburgh, and Cristina Bicchieri, a philosophy professor at the University of Pennsylvania, use variables such as the market price of a public work, the amount of a bribe paid to a public official, the social cost of a corrupt action and other factors to develop equations that help identify when corruption is most likely to occur.

"I don't think you can predict corruption, but you can identify the various conditions in which it is likely to arise," Duffy said. "There may be periods where corruption isn't visible, but it's slowly building up over time."

Bicchieri and Duffy used game theory to come up with equations that help determine when it becomes beneficial for a politician to receive a bribe or for a contractor to offer the bribe.

Duffy and others say public corruption is almost a cyclical process, and under certain conditions it becomes beneficial to a public official.

"Usually in the aftermath of an outbreak of corruption there is an effort from the regulators to tighten laws regarding corruption and increase enforcement," said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. "Then things quiet down and nobody has been arrested in a while, so politicians forget about the new laws."

Bicchieri said this reactionary process is one of the reasons why corruption will exist well into the future.

"The issue is, you can set up very strict rules for corrupt actions, but you need to go to the root of the problem," she said. "Otherwise you will continue to have corruption problems."

Crenson believes the root of the corruption problem in Prince George's may lie in its demographics and the difficulty black candidates face when running for statewide office.

"When you eliminate political ambition, you replace it with financial ambition," Crenson said.

Duffy believes that another reason corruption is so prevalent in general is the election process.

"The way they (politicians) stay in office is to solicit donations or bribes from the people they are supposed to be serving," he said. "Then competing interests collide and they are thrown out."

To many Prince George's County residents, this is no secret. In addition to the Johnsons, State Sen. Ulysses Currie was recently acquitted of bribery charges but still faces an ethics probe. Also, Del. Tiffany Alston of Prince George's was recently indicted for stealing from her campaign fund.

"Politics is pay-to-play," said McNeil. "If you can pay the right people, you can get the right result."

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