WASHINGTON – Former Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland's (search) guilty plea Thursday to a felony charge makes him only the latest in what is a steadily growing number of federal corruption prosecutions focusing on government officials.
Although totals have not yet been released, the number of such cases pursued by federal authorities has grown by as much as 15 percent over the last four years, according to a Justice Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The increase, said the official, reflects the high priority placed on public corruption cases rather than a sudden spike in the number of dishonest politicians.
But the steady slide of high-profile public officials into ethical and criminal scandals risks fostering increasing distrust of government leaders.
"The government is wounded," said Connecticut House Majority Leader James Amann. "It's something most of us are concerned about. Most people have their hearts in the right place - to serve the public. But no matter how well you construct the laws and make the rules there will always be the ones who decide to break the law."
In recent months, two northeast governors have resigned in disgrace and a presidential cabinet nominee withdrew his name in a swirl of controversy over a nanny-housekeeper he employed.
Ethical missteps, ranging from improper campaign contributions and gifts to racketeering and tax fraud, also led to the downfall of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (search), R-Ga., former Sen. Robert Torricelli (search), D-N.J., and Rep. James Traficant (search), R-Ohio.
And in a case that rocked the nation, former President Bill Clinton's (search) dalliance with a White House intern led to his impeachment by the House. But he survived a Senate trial and finished his term in office.
In the most recent cases:
-Rowland pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to steal honest service in connection with a two-year investigation into corruption in his administration.
-New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey (search) stepped down after acknowledging that he'd had an affair with another man.
-Former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik (search) withdrew his name from nomination as homeland security secretary after revealing he had not paid all required taxes for a family nanny-housekeeper and that the woman may have been in the country illegally.
In 2000, federal authorities indicted 1,000 public officials, according to Justice Department statistics. By 2002, the number had increased to 1,136, while the 2003 figure, not yet released, stayed relatively stable. The 2004 total will be up again, reflecting up to a 15 percent increase over the 2000 figure, said the Justice Department official.
However, he added, "I don't think there is more public corruption than 10 years ago or 20 years ago. I think we're doing a better job of finding it and prosecuting it."
Although the number of lawyers assigned to the Criminal Division's public integrity section has remained constant at about 30, the Justice Department works with U.S. attorneys on corruption probes, including the Rowland investigation. Justice officials from Attorney General John Ashcroft on down have said that while counterterrorism remains the top priority, ferreting out public corruption also ranks very high.
In response, a number of U.S. attorneys nationwide have set up special units to target corrupt politicians, focusing on election violations and campaign finance investigations.
Lawmakers are also taking notice.
"There is a greater awareness on the part of public officials that government needs to be run in an ethical way, by ethical people," said Peggy Kerns, director of the Center for Ethics in Government at the National Conference of State Legislatures (search).
Legislators "want training to show the public they can operate with high ethical standards and that they are upholding the public trust," said Kerns, who has visited 11 states since Election Day to provide ethics training for state officials. While many are instructed about their state's ethics laws, she said they are also looking for guidance on core values.
"Something may be legal, but that doesn't mean it's ethical," said Kerns, adding that the center is getting a "significant increase" in requests for training over previous years.