“Corrupt” is a word that may be used to describe something that is tainted, decayed, or putrid. It also describes a person who is debased in character, lacking in character, or dishonest. The term corruption is commonly used in modern society to refer to unethical or dishonest behaviors undertaken by someone who has been entrusted with authority. Such people may be elected or appointed officials, clergy, or corporate executives. Corruption exists in every nation of the world, and is generally undertaken for personal gain. To explore this concept, consider the following corruption definition.

Definition of Corruption


  1. Dishonest or illegal behaviors, especially by people in positions of power or authority.
  2. Impairment of moral principal, virtue, or values.


1300-1350       Middle English corrupcio 

What is Corruption

The term corruption is defined as the abuse of entrusted power for personal or private gain. Corruption has become so widespread that it is broken down into several categories, based on the sector in which it occurs, and the amounts of money lost, or other damages it causes. Dishonest activities commonly engaged in include bribery, embezzlement, and the hiring or advancement of certain people for private or political gain.

Corruption has many effects on society, costing people their hard-earned money, their freedom, their health, and sometimes even their lives. The severity of corruption is often defined by how widespread its effects are likely to be.

  • Petty Corruption – Petty corruption takes place on a small scale, often being viewed as more of an annoyance than larger scale corruption. Petty corruption occurs at the junction between public officials and the public they are supposed to serve. This may come in the form of accepting small gifts, which are improper in the giver’s expectation of favors. It also occurs in the use of personal connections to influence or manipulate government procedures. This type of corruption is most common with junior or mid-level officials who are underpaid.
  • Grand Corruption – Grand corruption takes place at the highest levels of the institution, being responsible for significant diversion or control over political, economic, and legal systems. Grand corruption is rampant in nations governed by authoritarian or dictatorial rule. The U.S., which government is divided into the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches, each having oversight of the other, grand corruption is less pervasive.
  • Systemic Corruption – Systemic corruption, also known as “endemic corruption,” occurs because of weaknesses in the organization’s structure, or in its procedures, practices, or methods. This is in contrast to the actions of individual officials in petty and grand corruption. Systemic corruption is often brought about by such issues as low pay in high-pressure jobs, lack of transparency, discretionary or monopolistic authority, and conflicting incentives. In a system where corruption becomes the rule, rather than the exception, acts of bribery, embezzlement, and extortion are commonplace.

Government Corruption

Corruption in the government may be present at all levels, including a broad variety of public agencies, and it impacts all of the citizens these elected, appointed, and employed officials are supposed to serve and protect. Government corruption includes a variety of activities, such as the offering or accepting of bribes, extortion, and the offering of jobs or other benefits to friends or family members (called “cronyism”). Government corruption may be broken down into three categories: (1) political corruption, (2) judicial corruption, and (3) police corruption.

Political Corruption

When thinking about political corruption, it is easy to focus a great deal of attention on the elections process, especially in the United States. Certainly corruption in the elections process causes chaos and distrust when it occurs. There are many rules and regulations surrounding who can run for office, how campaigns may operate, how campaign funds can be solicited and accepted, as well as how the voting process is organized and carried out. Corruption at any stage might serve to gain unfair advantage, and is detrimental to the democratic nature of the government.

Political corruption may also come in the form of manipulating policies, instituting rules and procedures, influencing the allocation of funding or other resources, or otherwise abusing a position of authority to increase or maintain the individual’s power, status, or wealth.

For example:

William, who has been Mayor of Small Towne for six months, has wanted membership at the Big Man in Towne Golf and Country Club for many years. The owner of ABC Construction wants trouble-free permits for the new apartment complex he intends to build over the next couple of years – something the city council and previous mayor refused to cooperate with.

The owner of the construction company greases the wheels by ensuring William is offered the country club membership he desires, and a relationship from which many deals will flow is cemented. In this example of corruption, William is using his power as Mayor for personal gain.

Judicial Corruption

Judicial corruption refers to misuse, dishonesty, or exploitation by judges, who hold a position of power over a great many people and issues. This may occur through the offering and acceptance of bribes, whether for payment of money, or giving of favors. Judicial corruption may show as bias in the hearing and judgment of arguments during hearings or trial, with decisions clearly favoring one party over the other.

For example:

Ben is on trial for charges of rape, for an incident that occurred while he was at a large frat party nearly a year ago. Ben’s father, Arthur, is a retired attorney, and a wealthy and influential man in the community. Arthur had a covert chat with the judge while they were both at the golf course, making the point that the whole incident and criminal charges has ruined his son’s life. Arthur bemoaned the fact that, if convicted by the jury, Ben would have to register as a sex offender, and his prospects for college were already shot.

After the jury found Ben guilty of the rape charges, the judge became responsible for sentencing him. Much to the family’s and jury’s shock, the judge sentenced Ben to only a few months in the county jail, even though the sentencing guidelines in the state clearly demanded a minimum of three years in prison. It soon became known that Arthur had been a financial and influential supporter of the judge for years. In this example of corruption, the judge’s actions were influenced by his relationship with the perpetrator’s father, which had been quite lucrative for him in the past.

Police Corruption

Police corruption has historically been thought of as the acceptance of bribes, but it actually may be accomplished through deeper, and less obvious, means. Specifically, police corruption may involve selectively pursuing, or failing to pursue, a criminal investigation or arrest, for the purpose of financial gain, career advancement, or other personal gain. It may also involve defying procedures or a set code of conduct in order to ensure a suspect is convicted. This may be done by falsifying evidence, or lying about procedures used to obtain evidence.

Although television shows and movies tend to make the Internal Affairs departments of various police organizations out to be bad guys, these divisions are tasked with investigating suspected police corruption, and officer misconduct.

Corruption Example in Government Office

Catalina Vasquez Villalpando joined the presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush in 1980, and became a rising star in public office following his election, holding positions on such boards as the League of United Latin American Citizens, the American GI Forum, as well as holding a position in the U.S. Department of Transportation before being appointed Special Assistant to the President for Public Liaison.

Villalpando was sworn in to the office of U.S. Treasurer under President Bush, becoming the highest-ranking Latina in the administration. During her tenure as Treasurer, Villalpando came under investigation for her service in multiple government offices, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”). The investigation was initiated by allegations that Villalpando had accepted bribes and favors while in office, and charges ranged from conspiracy to defraud the government, making fraudulent claims and false statement to federal agents, and racketeering.

In September, 1994, Villalpando, whose signature appeared on all U.S. paper currency printed during her three-year tenure as Treasurer, pled guilty to conspiracy to violate the False Statement Statute, tax evasion, and obstruction of justice. She was sentenced to four months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, 200 hours of community service, and a fine of $150 for underreporting her income to the IRS by $160,000.

The HUD investigation that initially focused attention on Villalpando turned up “a pervasive pattern of criminal behavior” involving multiple officials at HUD, which also included several consultants who regularly did business with the division. The investigators found that Housing Secretary Samuel R. Pierce Jr. was the “central person” in the HUD scandal. However, because he public accepted responsibility for his role, they decided not to issue criminal charges against him.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Bribery – The act of offering money or a favor in order to influence the conduct, ruling, or judgment of a person in a position of trust.
  • EmbezzlementMisappropriation or theft of funds placed in one’s trust, or which belong to one’s employer.
  • Extortion – The act of obtaining something through use of force, intimidation, or threats.
  • Transparency – The right of the public to examine the process of decision-making in government and politics.