Since she was a young prosecutor catching crooks who tried to bribe their way into school principals’ jobs in New York, Professor Lydia Segal has been fascinated with corruption. Since then, Segal, who has Harvard undergraduate and law degrees and a Master’s in Law from Oxford, has gone from locking up bad guys to trying to unlock the secrets of integrity in government.
She has written books about how rules intended to curb corruption can encourage it in public schools and then turned her scholarly laser beam on Inspectors General and what makes them effective.
In a ground-breaking study, Segal found some surprises when she scrutinized a group of 10 state, regional and city Inspectors General. Initially, she believed the best watchdogs would have the most distant relationships from the mayor, county commission or governor that appointed him.
“But I found that just because an office had the formal trappings of independence -and that was important - did not necessarily mean it operated extremely independently,” Segal said.
She found IGs that did not look independent on paper who managed to leverage greater power through strong relationships with reporters who publicized their work. And she found big city mayors who, despite close ties to campaign supporters, did not block the IGs they had the power to curb from going after those supporters when they found wrongdoing.
“I expected that integrity will flow from structure,” Segal said. “I’m not saying structure is unimportant. But it cannot mandate what I call individual moral agency.”
In contrast, she found IGs that looked great on paper but were toothless. The best example was New Orleans, which established an IG post-Katrina with a model law drafted by former Massachusetts Inspector General Robert Cerasoli. Cerasoli had a rude awakening when he became the IG and was rendered powerless by stonewalling officials holding his purse strings. Cerasoli left in frustration after he couldn’t access his own $3.2 million budget.
“The money never got to him. They stuck him in a carrel in the public library because he couldn’t even rent office space,” Segal said.
She concluded that combating corruption has to involve ethics training and encouraging people to develop a commitment to the common good.
Segal, who teaches Business Law and Ethics, said this study has led her to focus next on stewardship. She is studying examples like the Edmonton, Canada public school system, with fewer than 10 instances of fraud since 1984. A sense of responsibility for others is actively encouraged.
She’s come a long way from bugging bribery defendants outside Katz’s deli in New York, but as Segal says: "It is the way to go; I do want to draw attention to all the good people trying to do the right thing."