Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.

White-collar theft rampant in Washington
Perpetrators often turned in by those they bribe
Examiner Staff Writer
The Examiner -- Washington, DC
Published: Sunday, April 17, 2005 11:29 PM EDT

Some steal to support their families. Others do it to bankroll an extravagant lifestyle or addiction. And for a few, the temptation is too strong to resist. Whatever the reason, white-collar theft and government corruption cases are endemic in Washington and across the nation.

"I think it's hard to know whether the level of corruption in D.C. is higher than in other cities," said Stevan Bunnell, criminal division chief for the District's U.S. Attorney's Office. "I think it's a major problem in just about every major [city] around the world."

Although it's difficult to pinpoint trends in white-collar crime, a string of recent theft and bribery cases prosecuted in the District point to at least an ongoing problem in the city.

Just last week Wilhelm DerMinassian, a former District Department of Transportation official, was charged in federal court with receiving gratuities on the job. He is accused of awarding contracts totaling more than $5 million in exchange for nearly $20,000 in cash, a free hotel stay and repairs to his car, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Perception part of the problem

Part of the problem could be the perception that white-collar criminals are rarely punished, making some people think it's worth the risk, said Dr. Jeffrey Schaler, professor at American University's Department of Justice, Law and Society.

"It's more socially acceptable, so people think they are justified," Schaler said, pointing out that white-collar criminals often rationalize their actions and never fully accept responsibility for the crime.

Kevin Brown, 33, who is serving 18 months in prison for accepting bribes while employed at the U.S. Department of Labor, pleaded with a judge in February before he was sentenced, blaming a gambling addiction for his wrongdoing.

But the judge noted that in addition to receiving $12,000 cash, Brown netted a new computer and box seats to Washington Redskins games

As for longtime U.S. Postal Service employee Daniel J. Williams - who took bribes from printing companies in exchange for awarding contracts - he said he was driven to break the law to help support his family and send his children to college.

The 62-year-old Maryland man told the judge he "got caught up" in the scheme, which raked in nearly $800,000 over 12 years.

But the judge reminded Williams of the 1998 Corvette he bought with his ill-gotten gains before sentencing him earlier this year to almost four years in prison.

'They believe that crime pays'

"Why would someone steal $800,000? One reason is they believe that crime pays," Schaler said.

A lot of people, said Schaler, who get involved in such crimes calculate the risk and if it looks as though they will get away with it, they do it.

Bunnell said many public corruption cases are uncovered when the person doling out the bribes doesn't get what he or she was promised.

"They feel like they're getting ripped off, so they tell," he said.

As for those who embezzle funds, it's usually an audit that uncovers the crime.

That's what happened to Roger Chiang, 33, who was working for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee when he stole more than $300,000 in donations. Chiang, who pleaded guilty to felony mail fraud in February, didn't give a reason for the theft and his attorney called it a temporary "lapse in judgment."

In recent years, Bunnell said it's been tough to crack white-collar cases because the FBI reallocated its resources after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

That means fewer agents are fighting white-collar crime, he said, especially in Washington, where fighting terrorism is a top priority.

"Even now, we're not close to being back to the level of agent resources that we used to have on white-collar crime," Bunnell said. When asked if that means there is a rash of white-collar crime going on undetected, he said, "We only know what we know."