Survey Shows Americans Expressing Greater Concern About Government Corruption

Dec 12, 2017
Originally published on December 12, 2017 9:10 pm

Updated at 5:49 p.m. ET

The anti-corruption organization Transparency International says Americans are expressing greater concern this year about wrongdoing within the U.S. government, and especially within the White House.

It's the major finding in the organization's annual U.S. Corruption Barometer. Researcher Coralie Pring said that in 2016, only about a third of Americans expressed concerns about White House corruption. But in the new survey, she said, "just under one in two Americans think that there's very serious levels of corruption in the office of the president."

Transparency International defines corruption as "the abuse of entrusted power for private gain." The survey polled 1,005 people in October and November. The questionnaire was designed to allow comparisons with other nations.

Pring said America seems to worry more than most other nations about corruption at the top of government, with concerns about White House corruption matching responses to comparable questions in Pakistan, Armenia, Malawi and El Salvador.

"Citizens of these countries similarly think their office of the president is fairly corrupt," Pring said. "These are not countries that typically the U.S. compares itself to."

NPR reached out to the White House for comment on the poll but the White House has not responded.

The survey rated Congress as almost as corrupt as the White House.

Transparency International, headquartered in Berlin, issued the survey along with four U.S. watchdog groups: the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), Sunlight Foundation, OpenTheGovernment.org and the Financial Accountability and Corporate Transparency Coalition (FACT). They recommended steps to clean up government institutions, including stronger ethics agencies and an end to shell corporations and secret political money.

The institutional concerns raised in the survey are not new.

For months, foreign investors have considered the United States to have an "uncertain" business climate. And allegations have circulated that the Trump administration has backed off enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, or FCPA, which bars U.S. companies from paying bribes overseas. The FCPA is a primary tool in fighting bribery in international commerce.

The Trump administration denies that it's letting up on foreign corruption.

But that's not what Alexandra Wrage says she hears from business executives. Wrage is president of Trace International, which advises corporations in complying with the FCPA and other anti-bribery statutes.

"I fall back to just conversations — conversations with business people," she told NPR. "It's like, do you think you are now more or less likely to be prosecuted for corruption? And the answer is, uniformly, less likely."

The Economist magazine raised similar concerns about U.S. government institutions before President Trump took office. Its annual Democracy Index for 2016 downgraded the United States from a "full democracy" to "flawed democracy" status.

The magazine said the downgrade reflected Americans' shrinking confidence in public institutions.

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The anti-corruption organization Transparency International says Americans are expressing greater concern this year about wrongdoing within the U.S. government, especially within the White House. Today, the organization released what it calls its annual U.S. Corruption Barometer. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Researcher Coralie Pring said that in 2016, only a third of Americans had concerns about White House corruption. Now it's nearly half.

CORALIE PRING: Just under 1 in 2 Americans think that there's very serious levels of corruption in the office of the president.

OVERBY: Transparency International defines corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. The survey polled 1,005 people in October and November. The questions were designed to allow comparisons with other nations. America seems to worry more than most about corruption at the top of government. Pring said the question about corruption in the White House scored about as high as similar questions in some countries the U.S. doesn't often compare itself to.

PRING: Pakistan, Armenia, Malawi and El Salvador - citizens in these countries similarly think that their office of the president is fairly corrupt.

OVERBY: The survey rated Congress as almost as corrupt as the White House. Transparency International, headquartered in Germany, released the survey along with four U.S. watchdog groups. They recommended some steps to clean up government institutions, including stronger ethics agencies and an end to shell corporations and secret political money. The institutional concerns raised in this survey show up in other places, too.

Alexandra Wrage is president of the organization TRACE International. It helps companies fight bribery. She said in an interview that the Trump administration is seen as backing off enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The Trump Administration denies it, but Wrage says that's not what she hears.

ALEXANDRA WRAGE: I fall back to just conversations, conversations with business people. It's like, do you think you are now more or less likely to be prosecuted for corruption? And the answer is uniformly less likely.

OVERBY: The Economist magazine raised similar concerns before President Trump took office. Its annual Democracy Index for 2016 downgraded the U.S. from a full democracy to a flawed democracy. It said that happened because Americans were losing confidence in public institutions. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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