Public corruption and bribery: The acts often stem from a government official’s desire for money or power being so strong that it’s eventually overtaken by good old-fashioned greed.
From Watergate to Rod Blagojevich and pay-to-play politics to lower level schemes involving local officials, public corruption is about dishonest players disregarding their constitutes by abusing their power to achieve personal gain.
The FBI viewed the impact of public corruption to be so severe that it listed it as the agency’s top criminal priority. The FBI was working more than 2,000 public corruption cases across the U.S. in June 2011. The year prior, its investigations led to 900 convictions relating to the crime.
“Corrupt public officials undermine our country’s national security, our overall safety, the public trust, and confidence in the U.S. government, wasting billions of dollars along the way, “ Special Agent Patrick Bohrer said on the agency’s website.
It comes in many forms, including: money laundering, extortion, embezzlement, kickbacks. The most common form the FBI investigates was bribery.
A Bribe Is a Bribe: Local Corruption and Medical Marijuana
While cases of big time bribery like that of KBR’s former CEO Albert Jack Stanley grabbed the biggest headlines, the seedy act often occurred on the local level, too. Regardless of the scale, bribery didn’t appear to be going out of style anytime soon.
“Greed is not a trend, greed is greed; it’s existed as long as there have been human beings I suppose,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Akrotirianakis said.
Akrotirianakis has been a federal prosecutor for seven years, the last four working public corruption cases in the Los Angeles area. His office had not seen a slowing down of such crimes.
“In the past six months, we have had three [former] mayors who pled guilty to bribery or extortion or both, these were all cases investigated by the FBI and prosecuted in my office,” he said.
The cases involved John Tran of Rosemead, Calif.; Joseph Serrano Sr. of Santa Fe Springs, Calif.; and David Silva of Cudahy, Calif.
Tran pled guilty to taking $10,000 from a developer, while Serrano and Silva — in cases completely separate — pleaded guilty to taking bribes from medical marijuana dispensary owners. Serrano said he took $11,500 in exchange for a promise to help keep the shop open, while Silva’s case was a bit more complicated because it involved several city officials.
Silva pleaded guilty to bribery and extortion, while a councilman and a code enforcement officer also each pleaded guilty to the same charges. Combined, the three men admitted to taking a total of $17,000 from a medical marijuana shop owner.
When asked why he took the bribes, Silva told reporters: “Money. It’s greed, I guess.” He went on to say, “That’s what it was — just a stupid mistake.”
One That Got Away: Oregon Official On Run
But not all perpetrators were as forthcoming as Silva in admitting to their crimes. Take the case of Farhad “Fred” Monem. Hailed as a sharp businessman who saved Oregon millions of dollars a year, Monem was the Food Services Administrator for the State Department of Corrections from 1999 to 2007.
It was his job to secure contracts with vendors to buy food for Oregon’s 14,000 inmates across 14 state prisons. To the public, Monem was a good guy, earning a $60,000 salary and living with his family in Salem, Ore., but the U.S. Attorney’s Office alleges that, in reality, he was running one of the biggest public corruption cases in the state’s history.
According to the agency, over the course of six years, Monem stole at least $1.2 million from taxpayers through bribery and money laundering by taking kickbacks from five food vendors. The vendors sold him discounted foods that had reached expiration dates, were packed incorrectly or came from manufacturer overstocks, investigators said.
After a whistleblower came forward, the FBI began an investigation that led to charges against Monem, including bribery, money laundering, conspiracy and wire fraud. Monem was given the option of pleading guilty and receive an eight-year prison sentence, or go to trial and face 20 years.
He was given 10 days to make a decision, but apparently, according to the FBI, he didn’t even need one.
“That day, we found out later, that Fred Monem went home, got on his computer, and did two Google searches, one for flight schedules and one for the weather in Tehran, Iran,” FBI Special Agent Mike Holeman said.
$20,000 Reward: Can You Help Find a Fugitive?
Monem was born in Tehran and was believed to have fled there. For some time, the FBI had even communicated with him via email, as did local newspaper reporter Les Zaitz, who had been writing about Monem for years, since Monem's days as a respected state prison official.
“Fred liked the American lifestyle. But they wanted him to serve eight to 10 years in federal prison, and Fred told me that he thought this was just violently unfair,” Zaitz told “American Greed: The Fugitives.”
“In his view, he had done his job. He had saved the taxpayers millions and millions of dollars,” he said.
According to Holeman, based on conversations the FBI has had with Monem’s family members in Iran, he found life in that country to be difficult and wanted to come back to the U.S.
“He wants to be in his big house in South Salem, with a draft beer and big-screen TV and Oregon Ducks tickets. He doesn’t want to be in a federal prison; but that’s where he’s heading if he ever gets to a country where we have an extradition or he comes back to the United States,” Holeman said.
The FBI believes Monem might be trying to leave Iran.
The agency is offering up to a $20,000 reward for information leading to Monem’s arrest and conviction. If you have information that could help, contact your local FBI office or nearest American Embassy.
Watch Monem’s case on "American Greed: The Fugitives" on CNBC. It airs Wednesday, Sept. 5 at 9 p.m. ET and re-airs at 12 a.m. ET.