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An In-Depth Look at Public Corruption in California

Public Corruption in California Credit: Free Press / CC Flickr

In Brief

Corruption in the Golden State is an ongoing problem, with serious repercussions for Californians. In cities like Southern California’s Bell, politicians egregiously misused taxpayer money. Elsewhere, police officers stand accused of thievery and embezzlement of public funds. Encouraging public reporting of misconduct and increasing transparency are vital to helping California stem public corruption. To raise awareness about the need for reform, this report presents data and analysis on 70 California corruption cases. These cases expose the driving factors behind corruption: money and power, injustice within the justice system, and the lengthiness of time during which public officials commit crimes. Examining both historical cases and lesser-known local incidents will provide a clearer picture of how corruption limits local, state, and federal governments’ effectiveness. This will also demonstrate the profound effect that corruption has when government accountability to the public is reduced. Furthermore, this report will assess potential reform.

Public Corruption: California’s Vulnerability and the Impact on the General Public

Cornell University Law School offers that with regard to public corruption, “a government official, whether elected, appointed or hired, may violate federal law when he/she asks, demands, solicits, accepts, or agrees to receive anything of value in return for being influenced in the performance of their official duties.” Examples of public corruption include bribery, fraud, perjury, and theft. In 2012, 1,060 public officials were convicted of corruption nationwide, and there were an average 1,013 convictions annually over the preceding 20 years.

Despite many high-profile public corruption cases, California’s per capita public corruption convictions are nationally low. Some argue that this low number indicates a well-run system that deters and prevents corruption. California’s redistricting, lobbying disclosure, and internal auditing rank well in nationwide comparisons. But, a low per capita conviction rate could instead indicate vulnerabilities. Specifically it could show that the system frequently fails to identify instances of corruption. By examining the areas in which the state remains most vulnerable to corruption, we can assess how well-prepared the government is to deter it.

California’s high-vulnerability areas for corruption include limited public access to information, inconsistent judicial accountability, and opaque state budgeting processes. California’s D- in public access to government finances and information, or government transparency, reflects the difficulty citizens, journalists, and watchdog organizations have holding their officials accountable. The high cost of gaining access to public documents, including often extensive red tape and lengthy delays, presents roadblocks to independent oversight of government activities.

The 2012 Corruption Risk Report Card also gave California low marks in punishing corruption, including a C- in judicial accountability. California lacks adequate enforcement of state ethics and conflict of interest laws.

The recent suspensions of California State Senators Leland Yee, Ron Calderon, and Roderick Wright due to separate corruption charges have led to a surge in media and public concern over public corruption and campaign finance laws. According to a recent USC Dornsife/LA Times Poll, 84% of Californians are concerned about public corruption, with 51% being “very concerned.” However, 68% believe there are only “a few bad apples” in Sacramento, rather than a whole system of corruption.

The public’s trust in California’s legislature has declined. According to a March 2014 PPIC Statewide Survey, only 36% of Californians approved of the legislature’s performance, compared to 42% in January. In June 2014, The Field Poll found that California state legislators’ approval rating remains low at 36%. This makes California one of only a few states in which the majority of the public does not trust its state or local governments.

Californian Approval of State Legislature in 2014 Californian Approval of State Legislature in 2014

After decades of scandals involving California’s police, lawmakers, and judges, many are recognizing corruption’s detrimental effects on public trust. Lawmakers are now considering measures, such as imposing stricter limitations on campaign donations, in an effort to lessen the chance of corruption occurring.

Using available news articles, government reports, and statewide surveys, we documented and coded 70 public corruption cases in California to analyze public corruption’s effect on the state. For more detail about our research processes, see the Appendix.

Key Issues Resulting from California Corruption

Perhaps unsurprisingly, our analysis found that money (involved in over half of the studied cases) and power (involved in all of the studied cases) appear to drive corruption in California. In a number of cases, officials’ campaign debt or personal desire for money drove them to steal or abuse taxpayer dollars. In others, illegally-obtained campaign funds influenced political and policy outcomes for both political parties. For example, in 2011, campaign fundraiser Alexander Hugh reimbursed donor’s campaign contributions with cash (an illegal practice used to circumvent campaign donation limitations) in the successful elections of two Los Angeles County officials.

When police officers (involved in 16 of studied cases) are indicted, they present a roadblock to justice. For example, let’s say a police officer arrests a suspect and is expected to testify as a witness in the suspect’s upcoming trial. Meanwhile, the police officer is indicted for his own crime. Due to his conviction, the officer can no longer serve as a reliable witness in his suspect’s upcoming trial, thus jeopardizing the case against the suspect. In the recent King City police misconduct case, District Attorney Terry Spitz faced a similar situation. He dismissed three criminal cases because his witnesses included officers accused of other crimes. The prosecutors believed those three cases could not be won without the officers’ testimonies.

On average, among the 70 cases, the instances of corruption were ongoing and occurred over the course of three years, indicating long periods of undetected misconduct. Further, considering that 14 crimes lasted at least 5 years, there is clearly a deficiency in California with regard to reporting or detecting long-term ongoing misconduct by public officials.

Going Forward: California’s Powers of Reform

Government Reform

The California state legislature recently passed three new bills intended to increase oversight and restrictions on campaign finance, a major avenue for California corruption. Those bills aim to reduce corruption by:

  • Creating an ethics ombudsman.
  • Revising the Senate’s code of conduct to protect whistleblowers.
  • Banning receipt of campaign funds during the final month of the legislative session.

Other proposals include:

  • Banning lawmakers from receiving recreational-type gifts.
  • Making legislative documents more accessible to open records requests (transparency).
  • Prohibiting lobbyists from holding fundraisers at their homes.
  • Empowering the California Fair Political Practices Commission(FPPC) to regulate politicians’ practices before as well as after elections to decrease campaign violations.
  • Establishing an independent commission to provide oversight of the Senate.
  • Instituting a ban on receiving campaign contributions during the final 100 days of the legislative session.
  • Modernizing the outdated Cal-Access political finance and lobbying database so that it is less cumbersome.

Public Reform: Whistleblower Protections and Greater Transparency

Two overarching informational problems need to be addressed in response to California’s corruption: 1) Individuals frequently fail to report corruption and 2) government data is relatively inaccessible.

Recent reforms in whistleblower protection laws have created more protection for individuals reporting corruption. Already protected from job loss and employer retaliation, whistleblowers are now shielded whether reporting internally or externally. Furthermore, no one acting on behalf of their employers can retaliate against whistleblowers.

In spite of this, individuals still fail to report misconduct. For example, the King City police scandal emerged in early 2014. It included car thefts and embezzlement by police officers. Following the scandal’s emergence, many city residents admitted to knowing about the corruption. But, fearing retaliation, they failed to report it. With whistleblower protections in place, reporting corruption is safer. Still, citizens must feel confident in their protections before they will be comfortable revealing misconduct.

Despite strengthening its public reporting laws, California still falls extremely short on transparency. The system is too closed off from the public. To fix this, the public can support and help implement a variety of reforms. These include mandating that governments better report their finances, publish information in a timely manner in user-friendly formats and databases, provide audited finances, and update and strengthen public records systems to make them more accessible.

These reforms would have been crucial in stopping many previous corruption cases. In 2010, the fact that Bell City’s top officials spent nearly a decade illegally inflating their own salaries came to light. Public records requests revealed this corruption. Two reporters demanded by threat of a lawsuit that the officials hand over accurate financial records. With these records in-hand, the reporters soon brought the corruption to light. The city officials were stopped, indicted, and convicted.

The corruption could have emerged sooner had the public demanded accurate records earlier. If the city’s financials were more transparent, then the problem may have never occurred in the first place. Transparency deters officials from committing corruption because the public will hold them accountable.


Corruption in California can occur at every level of government. Public officials have squandered taxpayer dollars through embezzlement, police officers have abused their positions to obstruct justice, and too often, information imbalances permit these types of abuses to continue unnoticed and unchecked for years. Compared to other states, California’s state ethics enforcement and judicial accountability is limited. These statewide inadequacies leave citizens financially and legally vulnerable with regard to public corruption.

To detect and deter public corruption the state and its localities can ensure protections for potential whistleblowers and improve access to government information. Citizens can advocate for both of these changes. Being confident that one will not experience retaliation for reporting crimes by public officials would reduce the fear that incentivizes many to withhold crucial information. Releasing more government information does not detect corruption, but it provides the necessary first steps for external watchdogs and auditors to do so. Systems that leave themselves vulnerable to corruption leave themselves vulnerable to ineffectiveness and distrust among citizens. California’s communities simply cannot afford that vulnerability.

Appendix: Data, Notations, and Methodology

California Public Corruption Sample Data

Notations on Trends in Data:

  1. Bribery most common crime—monetary misconduct in 54% of the cases
  2. 18 state, 13 federal, 39 local
  3. Average of 1.99 years between crime and indictment
  4. 12 Republicans, 12 Democrats, 46 N/A
  5. Return to Public Office: 9 yes, 53 No, 8 Unknowns
  6. 49 Southern CA (21 of those LA), 4 Central CA, 17 Northern CA
  7. 15 of 70 cases are of police corruption (21%)
  8. 8 overturns or partial overturns—significant because big corruption cases had parts or all of their convictions overturned
  9. Crime lasted on average 3.01 years (counting one-time crimes as one year)
  10. 5 out of 70 cases were judges themselves, meaning that, together with the police, 29% of the cases are a part of the justice system
  11. 20 out of 70 cases (29%) were highly-ranked officials (includes Mayors, State Senators, Insurance Commissioners, Lieutenant-Governors, State Secretary of State, Federal Representatives, and U.S. President)

Coding Template

Questions and Answer Options:

  1. Who was involved in the corruption? Name of person and/or organization
  2. What level of public office did the person(s) hold? Federal/State/Local
  3. What public office did the person(s) hold? Name of Office
  4. What district did the person represent? District seat & number (e.g. State Senate District 12) and major counties in that district OR county/city represented by the office holder
  5. What was person’s political party? Democrat/Republican/N/A
  6. Did the person return to public office after corruption? Yes/No/Unknown/UFN (Undecided For Now)
  7. Was the person indicted? Yes/No
  8. What were the indictment charges? List of charges
  9. Date of Crime: Year or year span (includes month if information available)
  10. Date of Indictment: Year and month (if available) OR N/A (Not Applicable)
  11. Was the person convicted? Yes/No/UFN
  12. What was the person’s sentence (if convicted)? Details of sentence OR UFN OR N/A OR Varied
  13. Was conviction overturned? Yes/No/Partial/N/A/Varied

Coding Standards & Definitions

  1. Question 1: Corruption definition: Dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power (Oxford Dictionary)
  2. Question 2: Public office held while crime committed
  3. Questions 2, 3, 6: Public office includes appointed, elected, and hired positions (e.g. police officer)
  4. Question 5: N/A for non-elected or some appointed positions
  5. Question 6: Served in any public office at some point between crime and present
  6. Color Coded: Blue = Federal Offices, Orange = State Offices, Green = Local Offices
  7. Chart sorted alphabetically according to “WHO” Column
  8. Notes on Overturned Convictions embedded in “OVERTURNED” Column
  9. Summary & Analysis for each case embedded in the “CHARGES” Column
  10. Corruption cases with multiple public officials are sorted according to each individual separately (e.g. Shrimpscam) with notation of the scandal name along with each public official’s name

Works Cited[+ Expand]

“Public Corruption.” Cornell University Law School. 2014.

Ginley, Caitlin. “Grading the nation: How accountable is your state?” The Center for Public Integrity. March 19, 2012.

“California Corruption Risk Report Card.” The Center for Public Integrity. 2012.

“California Corruption Risk Report Card.” The Center for Public Integrity. 2012.

“California Corruption Risk Report Card.” The Center for Public Integrity. 2012.

“California Corruption Risk Report Card.” The Center for Public Integrity. 2012.

Baldassare, Mark and Dean Bonner and Sonja Petek and Jui Shrestha. “Californians & their government.” PPIC Statewide Survey. March 2014.

“Job Approval Ratings for California State Legislature.” PPIC Statewide Survey. January 2014.

“Tabulations From a Survey of California Registered Voters about the Direction of the State and the Legislature’s Job Performance.” Field Research Corporation. June 27, 2014.

Elias, Tom. “California State Senators Clearly Prefer Money Over Trust.” Santa Monica Mirror.

Bergmann, Michelle. “What is Holding Up California Ethics Reform.” Fox & Hounds. July 23, 2014.

Boston, Michelle. “USC Dornsife/LA Times poll reveals public opinion about political corruption.” University of Southern California. May 31, 2014.

McGreevy, Patrick. “Calif. Senate adopts new ethics standards, rejects others.” Los Angeles Times. June 09, 2014.

“What is Cal-Access?”

Goodwin, Kevin and Laura Reathaford. “New California Law Expands Protections for Whistleblowers.” Proskauer Rose LLP. December 12, 2013.

Romney, Lee. “King City police scandal ignites Latinos’ ire.” Los Angeles Times. March 14, 2014.

Storms, Evan. “California Assembly Exemplifies Lack of Government Transparency.” California Common Sense. August 17, 2011.

Skallman, Daniel. “Public record request reveals corruption in city government.” September 28, 2010.

Grubaugh, Connor. “A Deep Dive into Senate Culture.” Capitol Weekly. August 5, 2014.

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