FBI Web Site Attracts Tipsters, Whistleblowers Against Public Corruption

Even with stories about public corruption probes flooding the morning papers, Internet and cable news airwaves, the FBI's new Web site for individuals to report malfeasance and just plain bad behavior hasn't made splashy headlines.

But the site, reportcorruption.fbi.gov, is up and running and the G-Men are paying attention.

"They don't want me to get into numbers, but, yes, we have had credible tips already," said Steve Kodak, an FBI spokesman.

It turns out that while tip lines have been in use by nearly every major and minor police department in the nation for years, the FBI's public corruption Web site, created last month, is somewhat of a new venture.

The idea is an offshoot of the Hurricane Katrina fraud tip line, which was created when law enforcement officers realized the outpouring of public support in rebuilding the Gulf Coast after last year's hurricanes wasn't benefiting just the people of Louisiana. A report out Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office reveals the government doled out an estimated $1.4 billion for fraudulent requests for assistance.

Over the past five years, the FBI has increased the number of agents dedicated to anti-corruption efforts from 450 to about 620. Of late, they have been kept busy with a persistent drumbeat of corruption-related cases involving congressional and federal officials.

On the wall of shame lately has been Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who saw his tenure in the House of Representatives come to an end after a newspaper revealed strange real estate deals involving the congressman that led to the uncovering of $2.4 million in bribes given to the California Republican in exchange for lucrative government contracts.

Elsewhere, court documents allege Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., took $100,000 in bribe money — an act that FBI agents say is caught on videotape. Agents apparently recovered $90,000 of the marked cash from Jefferson's home freezer, and claim they saw him trying to hide certain documents from agents while they were searching his house last year. The congressman has denied wrongdoing, and no charges have been filed against him, but an aide to Jefferson and a businessman have entered related guilty pleas.

The lobbying schemes surrounding Jack Abramoff have so far garnered federal plea deals from Abramoff; Neil Volz, a lobbyist and former aide to Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio; and Tony Rudy, a former aide to former Republican Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas. A jury is currently deliberating the case against David Safavian, a top procurement official who is accused of lying to ethics regulators about his connections to Abramoff and a pricey golf trip he took with the lobbyist to Scotland.

No charges have been filed against Ney or DeLay, but they remain in the investigative crosshairs, and their political fortunes have taken turns for the worse. DeLay is facing unrelated charges in Texas of campaign money laundering. He retired from the House last week. Ney was forced to give up his position as chairman of the House Administration Committee.

Each of the investigations has spun off a web of new inquiries. Many more probes — from shady campaign tactics to corporate favoritism — are being conducted at the state and local levels.

With the list of investigations so long, Kodak said it is no coincidence the FBI is ramping up its efforts. "Obviously not, with everything that's going on lately," he said.

Tipsters from any walk of life are welcome to report suspicious activities, but since most of the would-be criminal action occurs behind closed doors, the bureau expects most contributions to come from individuals who work within the government.

The FBI's anti-corruption Web site offers visitors links where they can enter a tip or find phone numbers for local FBI field offices. Kodak said tipsters can leave as much or as little information as they want and assures that if tipsters want to remain anonymous, the FBI won't reveal their identities.

Because corruption cases take a long time to build, Kodak couldn't say how long it might take for this latest effort to bear fruit. He also acknowledged that anonymous tips make investigations more difficult because they're harder to verify and the possibility exists that some people might use the Web site to settle personal vendettas. But the problems don't outweigh the value of the program, he said.

"That's always been the case with any type of tip," Kodak said. "It all comes down to the field agent doing good ground work."

The Potential Downside of Tattling

Asked whether the National Security Agency might be called in to fish out an anonymous tipster against his or her will — a possibility, albeit remote, given the NSA's access to phone records and matrices of who's been calling whom — Kodak steered clear of the suggestion.

"We have never had a case where if someone was to remain anonymous, that we were to track that person down," he said.

But Frankie Bailey, an associate professor at the SUNY University at Albany's criminal justice department, said some people might be scared away from using the site anyway.

The site doesn't say tipsters must leave personal information, but it doesn't exactly encourage anonymous tips. The tip page has space for all sorts of identification, which Bailey said she believes would be necessary to make necessary follow-up for tip verification.

"I don't know how they'd be able to follow up unless you left enough information. ... I would think they would need at least enough to get back to you," Bailey said.

One ex-cop says it's not out of the question that an anonymous tipster would be outed, or those trying to clean up corruption would become targets of retribution.

Peter Mancuso retired from the New York City police department in 1987 as assistant director of training. Around the same time, a massive corruption probe began looking into renegade police officers whose extracurricular activities included robbing drug dealers and re-selling their wares for personal profit. As indictments rained down, those who were trying to help uncover the criminal activity became targets themselves, Mancuso said.

Officers who reported corruption either were ignored or faced disciplinary actions for going against their superiors, he said. In one case, an officer who was an internal affairs plant in a corrupt precinct later faced perjury charges regarding his participation in the probe. Another officer faced disciplinary action after trying to place an anonymous tip. He was identified after the investigation began.

Trying to establish a public advocate for anti-corruption efforts, Mancuso and a group of retired officers sought to strike a difficult balance between distancing investigators from the active-duty police force and not becoming beholden to politicians whom they needed to gain enough political heft to raise a stink if future corruption went unchecked.

They hoped to amass allegations from current officers to present to higher authorities if normal channels of communication broke down. The group set up a tip line, got press coverage and waited for the calls to come in. But they didn't come. Eventually the effort fizzled out, Mancuso said.

Mancuso, who now runs a business in the Philadelphia suburbs, said he thinks the tip line didn't ring because the top echelons of the police department never endorsed it. The key is to put as much distance between the agency investigating the corruption and those who hold sway over the people reporting it, something he said the federal government is just as susceptible to as smaller agencies.

"Any time a public employee faces an official — or unofficial — punishment, in a sense for reporting corruption, it's obvious to me that that is an impediment," Mancuso said.

In some cases, it might be impossible to shield anonymous tipsters because only a handful of people would be privy to the information being reported, said Randall Eliason, who was in charge of the Justice Department's Public Corruption/Government Fraud Section from December 1998 until August 2001.

Eliason, now an adjunct professor at American and George Washington universities, said another problem with corruption cases is that prospective tipsters might not be sure about what they saw. Other criminal cases have identifiable evidence that a crime has happened: a dead body, a bank robbery caught on surveillance tape; a missing child.

But something that could be seen as corruption could also be a benign business transaction. And even if someone did see money exchanging hands between politicians, it's hard to prove the intent without catching the act on videotape.

"When you're trying to combat that, and predict what was in someone's mind ... the best proof of that is if you got someone on tape," Eliason said.

But catching corruption on tape poses its own problems, Eliason said. Informants who participate in police probes might be doing it to avoid prosecution, and they make less-than-perfect witnesses. It's even harder to orchestrate a sting operation to catch corrupt officials, like when the Justice Department got agents to pose as Arab sheiks in the Abscam bribery probe that unraveled in the beginning of the 1980s, netting multiple convictions of members of Congress.

The way campaign finance laws are written doesn't help either, Eliason said. Nearly everyone who makes a political contribution wants something in exchange, and it's often a matter of semantics when it comes to deciding whether an act is legal.

"Campaign contributions are considered perfectly fine, but briberies are considered illegal," Eliason said.

Bailey said the decision to report a tip also poses an ethical dilemma.

"Do you want to get someone in trouble when you don't have enough information? ... You would have to think long and hard whether or not you wanted to bring the whole force of the federal government down on someone," she said.

Nevertheless, with plenty of attention being paid to corruption, Bailey said it's a good time to roll out the site.

"The climate is right to get people to log on," she said. And even if the tips don't roll in, the FBI might not have a total loss.

"The Web site is really interesting. Whether or not people actually report it, it draws you into the site as to what the FBI's really involved [in]. It's public relations," Bailey said.