Do You Live in a Corrupt City? Here’s How You Can Tell

Nothing frustrates people quite like government corruption. Every day, we hear elected officials speak in lofty terms about public service and making the community better. But when we learn they were accepting bribes and otherwise acting in the most corrupt fashion, it’s easy to feel lied to and manipulated. No one likes a double standard.

On the state level, places such as South Dakota set the standard for corruption. The Mount Rushmore State has an annual ritual where lobbyists and lawmakers party together for several days to decide the legislature’s upcoming agenda. Needless to say, the concerns of the average state resident matter little during these pow-wows. Money does most of the talking.

Corrupt city governments operate in some of the same ways. However, if your city lacks a strong press corps, you might find local agencies getting away with murder (literally). If you’re wondering whether your town falls into this category, look for the modern hallmarks of corruption. Here are some of the obvious signs you live in a corrupt city.

1. One party dominates the government.

District Attorney of the city of Philadelphia Rufus Seth Williams listens to Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross
Seth Williams (Second from right) pleaded guilty to corruption. | Mark Makela/Getty Images

Nothing breeds corruption like a lack of oversight. When one party controls all branches of a government, you can be sure investigations into colleagues’ corruption will go lightly (if they happen at all). Recently, we started seeing this play out at the federal level, but Americans see it more often in local governments.

You find that in Philadelphia, which is receiving nominations for America’s most corrupt city. Residents saw Philly’s district attorney head straight to jail after taking refuge in a guilty plea in 2017. Seth Williams, the disgraced D.A. in question, acted so shamelessly that members of his own party had to know about his corruption. However, when it’s a former (or current) colleague, you’re less likely to hold them accountable.

2. Politicians keep going to jail.

miami florida skyline
Miami had over 400 corruption convictions in nine years. | Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

Nothing screams corruption quite like local officials heading to jail on a regular basis. In 2015, when the University of Illinois released its study on government corruption, researchers tallied up the number of corruption convictions in big cities over the years. Miami and Newark both saw over 400 convictions on corruption charges from 2000-09. Those figures outpaced even the country’s most established cesspools. (Here’s looking at you, Chicago.)

3. The court system won’t deliver justice.

05 May 1992 in Simi Valley, to protest the verdict in the trial of the four police officers who were acquitted in the Rodney King case
In 1991, the African American community in Los Angeles was outraged after a store owner who killed a teen received no jail time. | Hal Garb/AFP/Getty Images

The run-up to the 1992 Los Angeles riots served as a case study in the failure of a city’s justice system. After the 1991 murder of a young black girl by a store owner, the L.A. judge assigned to the case did not give the convicted killer any jail time. The city’s African-American community, already outraged by the murder and footage of LAPD officers beating Rodney King, nearly rioted when the judge announced sentencing.

Six month later, in April of ’92, the world watched with horror when the officers who beat King all left the courtroom free men. L.A. County’s justice system failed so badly on both counts the later acquittal of O.J. Simpson came as a correction. When you need to set a guilty man free to right the system, you officially have a problem.

4. Nepotism runs rampant.

When the family starts getting insider jobs, it’s a bad sign. | Sean Pavone/iStock/Getty Images

When a politician’s daughter, son-in-law, and others in their inner circle suddenly get government jobs, you know something is wrong. After all, that’s how America’s No. 1 enemy Kim Jong Un took over North Korea: Daddy died. You’d think the land of the free and home of the brave would have higher standards than that.

Well, many of America’s city governments share the dubious ethical standards we now see in the White House. Not to keep picking on Philly, but the city delivered a recent example when the new parking authority chief made a hire. Out of all the available candidates for an administrative assistant job, the new director hired her daughter’s roommate for the gig.

5. Officials go in poor, come out rich.

Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich pauses while speaking to the media at the Dirksen Federal Building
Blagojevich was finally stopped by the FBI. | Frank Polich/Getty Images

Naturally, working in government gives private citizens exposure and greater earning potential once they leave office. However, too often it becomes a ticket to earn money and favors using the job. Take Rod Blagojevich, the disgraced former governor of Illinois.

When then-Senator Barack Obama went off to become president, Blagojevich did what came normal for a politician trained in the Chicago style: He tried to sell Obama’s senate seat. Public servants who enter the office as middle class and leave among the 1% tells you everything you need to know. In Blagojevich’s case, the FBI stopped him, but many others have gotten away with moneymaking schemes in the past.

6. The budget is always short.

Detroit Skyline during the evening
Detroit is one of the worst run cities in America. | Steven_Kriemadis/iStock/Getty Images

If you look into WalletHub’s worst-run cities, you find some places have decent funding yet provide terrible services to constituents. Take Detroit as an example. Though the city ranked 90th in funding per capita, Detroit ranked dead last (150th) in quality of city services. Either the money is being misspent or being stuffed in someone’s pocket (or both). But it’s usually a sign of corruption.

7. City infrastructure is crumbling.

Former New York State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos walks into a Manhattan court for his sentencing
Dean Skelos was using his power to benefit his son. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

When you have a budget shortfall, politicians can’t find funds to repair streets and fix public buildings. Once people start investigating where the millions went, they usually find questionable accounting practices, unnecessary jobs, and other discrepancies.

In the case of former New York Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, investigators discovered the influential politician trading government contracts for favors benefiting his son. When someone’s top priority is lining his family’s pockets, it’s hard to craft a frugal budget and keep the city in order.

8. You know FBI agents by their first names.

Crystal City had 100 FBI agents in the little town. | Billy Hathorn/Wikimedia Commons

A tiny Texas burg called Crystal City once got nominated for the “most corrupt little town in America.” In the Washington Post’s rundown of this city’s corruption, you can learn how every city council member but one faced federal criminal charges in 2016. Crystal City, which boasts a population of fewer than 7,500, had 100 FBI agents in town that year to clean up its mess. When a small town becomes the state’s new FBI headquarters, there’s a problem.

9. The name of your city is Chicago.

There’s no place like Chicago for corruption. | Ibsky/iStock/Getty Images

Even with Philadelphia and Las Vegas contending for the 2018 title, no place in America can yet topple Chicago, our most corrupt city. Between 1976 and 2013, the northern district of Illinois had a startling 1,642 corruption convictions, University of Illinois found. Things have not changed much since that 2015 study. In December 2016, a Chicago alderman was indicted on federal corruption charges, setting up to be the 30th alderman convicted since 1972.

The official he replaced went to federal prison for a racket of her own in the 20th ward. So this type of thing is buried deep in the culture of Chicago. It’s the same in many other cities, but for now no place does it quite like The Windy City.

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