Insider Accounts of Institutional Corruption

by Garry C. Gray

I have a vivid memory of the moment when I discovered that a company I worked for was scamming people in the name of the local wheelchair basketball association.

I was fourteen years old and my job was to phone people in the community to ask if they’d like to support the association by purchasing coupon books. It seemed like a win-win, and I remember that many people were happy to help out. Rarely was anyone suspicious enough to ask how much of the proceeds the association actually received. As soon as I said the words “wheelchair basketball” I had primed them into the spirit of giving, or otherwise declining regretfully. I eventually discovered from another employee that the association received only 10% of the funds. I was appalled.

The whole business model depended on people making the good-hearted assumption that the wheelchair basketball association would be receiving a substantive portion of the proceeds. There was no doubt in my mind that coupon book sales would have been dismal had we openly and directly disclosed their meager 10% cut. Nevertheless, I realized that the “good worker” could shrug off remarks that the practice was unethical, by citing the fact that everything was legal, or pitching the “they didn’t ask” argument. But no amount of insight or rationalization could alleviate the uneasy feeling in my gut that only we, the insiders, knew what was going on, and the public trusted us.

My employment there didn’t last long, but it did have lasting effects on my research years later. Becoming an insider seemed to be the ultimate strategy to examine the research questions I was asking. It was the ideal way to generate understanding about implicit and normalized behaviors inside organizations, and the ways that local cultures influence everyday decision-making. However, as researchers, the methods we select are a function of time, resources, access, and training, as well as ethical considerations that guard against possible harms to research subjects. In other words, in many—if not most—cases, it is not possible for scholars to become true insiders who can generate insights first-hand through a combination of experience, immersion, and direct observation, as inspired by Bronislaw Malinowski and Margaret Mead in their early ethnographic studies.

Alternatively, the insider account offers another path to discovery. Insider accounts can be extremely fruitful, especially if the researcher is skilled at palpating the contours and nuances of the insider’s opaque world. This is what Lawrence Lessig strived to do when he interviewed Jack Abramoff as part of the “In the Dock” series at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. Corruption in Congress, particularly as it has manifested in the interactions between lobbyists and public officials, has become a systemic problem that extends far beyond Abramoff’s individual behaviors. Abramoff was an insider willing to talk about this.

Abramoff’s insider accounts have provided a lens for analyzing the rationalizations, patterns of interactions, and insider tricks of the trade that are used to perpetuate the social organization and structure of institutional corruption in lobbying and Congress. In my recent article, Insider Accounts of Institutional Corruption: Examining the Social Organization of Unethical Behaviour published in the British Journal of Criminology (2013), I draw on Abramoff’s insider accounts to not only provide this analysis, but also to demonstrate the use of insider accounts as an empirical pathway into examining the world of professional misconduct and unethical behavior.

Although insider accounts are not representative, they do reveal structures, loopholes, and contexts that are conducive to unethical behavior. The article describes five techniques that Abramoff employed to his advantage: 1) the creation of fronts through non-profit organizations and advocacy groups, 2) indirect gifting, 3) revolving doors of employment, 4) corrupt riders, and 5) creating conditions to rationalize unethical behavior. Drawing on the weaknesses of the system, he actively established and exploited dependencies by members of Congress and their staff. These actions, he explained, are widely practiced and constitute a system of institutional corruption that is still operating today.

Whereas the formula that telephone solicitors might use is relatively straight-forward to understand, Abramoff has described a series of complex and nuanced techniques designed precisely to obscure unethical behavior from the public eye. One of the difficulties of researching unethical behavior is that these practices are often embedded within seemingly lawful institutional activities. The scholar must then consider how it might be possible to discover, tease apart, and disrupt these less visible normalization patterns of unethical behavior.

Insider accounts, while difficult to obtain, provide key insights into the subtle and often taken-for granted routines of professionals. They can make visible practices that insiders may enact unreflectively, but which an outsider analyzing the account may be able to discern. In this way, they can be a window to sophisticated and insidious modes of institutional corruption that threaten the integrity of our public institutions, and the trust they depend on for continued legitimacy.