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When is a country corrupt?

Chris Huhne at the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in 2010 (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)As I clicked onto Outlook this morning I was delivered the latest news of corruption in China.

AFP reported that a police chief in southern Guandong had been accused of having 192 houses.

DANWEI, a website that tracks Chinese media and internet, published the findings of a study by the Crisis Management Research Centre at Renmin University Beijing. It examined the top 24 corruption cases in 2012 starting of course with BoXilai. Among its findings was that 95% of all corrupt officials had mistresses and, perhaps more forensically relevant, that the majority of corrupt officials held the rank of Party Secretary.

Nothing new there then.

At that point I began to wonder what the tipping point would be for the Chinese people when would they stand up and say enough is enough, the system in which we live is inherently corrupt and we want change…what would it need to tip the balance.

But before I could ruminate on this particular thought for too long I began to think about cases closer to home.

Christopher Huhne M.P was a cabinet minister in the coalition government.  Two years ago he resigned to defend himself after being charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice.

The alleged crime was very British in that it became public as a result of sexual indiscretion — and involved a crime that many would consider trivial.

In 2010 Mr Huhne, announced that he was leaving his wife of many years to live with his publically acknowledged bisexual mistress. His wife sought revenge by telling a tabloid newspaper that in 2003 she had claimed to be driving his car when the car was observed doing 69 miles per hour in a 50 mph zone, when in fact he had been the driver. Why was this relevant? Because had he told the truth at the time he would have been disqualified from driving. Much political equity would have been squandered. He chose to lie and for the last two years has vigorously asserted his innocence.

On Monday the 4th of February, undone by text messages between him and his son, Mr Huhne changed his plea to guilty. He will go to prison.

Today it was announced by New Scotland Yard that a fourth police officer in the Diplomatic Protection Squad had been arrested over what has become known as the “Plebgate” affair.

As with Huhne, there is a significant political dimension to this case. It centred on the question of whether the bicycle-riding Chief Whip had called police officers guarding Downing Street “plebs” when they told him to get off his bike and walk rather than ride through the security gate at Downing Street. It now seems probable that a number of police officers may have lied in witness statements about the affair and may have falsified evidence logs of what transpired.

Finally, last week a Detective Chief Inspector in the Metropolitan Police was sentenced to 15 months in prison for misconduct in a public office. She was convicted of attempting to sell confidential information to a newspaper. Her conviction was part of a substantial and on-going investigation into corruption between the police and the media.

Three separate cases, three different sets of facts. But at their heart, all three involve dishonesty and corruption.

Of course the strength of our system is on full display because these cases have been identified and are being dealt with.

But also on display is its vulnerability.

A reminder if one is needed that corruption is insidious and contagious. And a stimulus to a different question — at what point does a country begin to be regarded as corrupt — how many former government ministers and police officers need to be sent to prison before people say of us “Nothing new there then.” Where is the tipping point?


Bill Waite is a contributing editor of the FCPA Blog.

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