Saturday, June 7
Meeting the Challenge of Political Corruption
Moderator: Daniel C. Richman, Paul J. Kellner Professor of Law
Panelists: Evan A. Davis ’69, Prof. Richard Briffault, Rose Gill Hearn
Anti-Corruption Veterans Discuss the “Eternal Vigilance” Required to Maintain Public Trust in Government
Evan A. Davis ’69, Professor Richard Briffault, and Rose Gill Hearn, Chair of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, Share Thoughts on “Meeting the Challenge of Political Corruption”
A lively panel discussion on a problem as old as the legal profession itself—corruption—kicked off the second day of Reunion 2014 for alumni who packed a classroom in Jerome Greene Hall on Saturday, June 7.
“Corruption is a subject that is hard to wrestle to the ground, and nonetheless is spectacularly important,” said Daniel C. Richman, Paul J. Kellner Professor of Law, who moderated the discussion.
The panel, “Meeting the Challenge of Political Corruption,” was led by three lawyers who have spent their careers fighting graft and working to maintain integrity in government. The veterans skipped the onerous task of trying to precisely define corruption and jumped directly into a lively dialogue about its many forms and impacts on society.
"It's not walking the line between ethical and unethical—it's walking the line between criminal and non-criminal conduct," said Evan A. Davis '69, of some political circles in Albany, N.Y.
Richard Briffault, Joseph P. Chamberlain Professor of Legislation at Columbia Law School and chair of the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board, said corruption impedes efficient government, promotes unfairness, and undermines democracy.
“When people see that government is corrupted, the public loses faith and withdraws,” he said.
Panelist Evan A. Davis ’69, senior counsel at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton who served as counsel to New York Gov. Mario Cuomo in the 1990s and recently spearheaded a New York City Bar study of New York State’s ethics enforcement agency, observed of Albany, “In certain circles, there’s a culture of walking the line. It’s not walking the line between ethical and unethical—it’s walking the line between criminal and non-criminal conduct.”
State agencies and commissions that investigate ethical violations by elected leaders are an obvious line of defense, but Davis said such agencies often fall short. A lack of independence can lead to a timid, ineffective agency, he said.
“It’s important for ethics’ agencies to be real advocates,” Davis said, adding they “need to push for ethical government.”
Panelist Rose Gill Hearn, chair of the New York City Campaign Finance Board who from 2002 to 2013 served as commissioner of New York City’s Department of Investigation (DOI), recounted details from numerous corruption cases brought against elected officials caught committing unscrupulous acts.
In 2007, after noticing that many corruption cases involved taxpayer funded non-profits, Gill Hearn helped create a new unit at DOI specifically tasked with investigating non-profit and vendor fraud. By the end of 2013, the unit had made 50 arrests and helped recover millions of dollars of taxpayer funds.
Last August, Gill Hearn and David M. Schizer, Dean and the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law and the Harvey R. Miller Professor of Law and Economics announced the launch of the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School to research anti-corruption strategies. Gill Hearn chairs the advisory board of the center, which is led by executive director Jennifer B. Rodgers, and is working to bridge the gap between scholars who study corruption and practitioners who work to eliminate it.
Attendees listen as panelists share their knowledge of corruption in the legal profession.
“We decided it would be a good idea to take some of the forfeited funds recovered through our investigations and put them to work in an academic setting that would be dedicated to strengthening and supporting anti-corruption efforts in New York, across the country, and around the globe,” said Gill Hearn.
The discussion ended with a round of questions and comments by alumni, including many who also fight corruption in their careers. One woman who was recently elected to the city council of Bell, a city outside Los Angeles where systemic theft and corruption drew national headlines in 2010, said her jurisdiction will never recover all the money it lost. Another panelist spoke about anti-corruption training provided to federal government employees.
Briffault, who along with Richman serves on the center’s advisory board, said “there will never be an end to corruption, but we can discourage it, investigate it, and punish it when it happens.” He said “eternal vigilance” is the price citizens must pay for efficient government.