Tag Archives: Scandal

Brandon Rottinghaus – The Institutional Effects of Executive Scandal

Brandon Rottinghaus is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Houston


If reports in the media are any indication, political scandals resulting from corruption or personal indiscretions are ubiquitous. Governors fly to international locations on the public’s dime for extramarital trysts or attempt to sell Senate seats. Presidents and their senior staff conspire to cover up political crimes. Political nominees are accused of financial misdeeds related to federal income tax returns. This year alone we have seen several governors under serious scrutiny, the President of the United States in hot water and dozens of mayors, members of Congress and state legislators involved in political scandals.

Scandals are argued to be on the rise because the media is more invasive, communications technology is more pervasive, laws are stricter and political opponents thrive in using these tactics as political weapons. Assertions of “gotcha” politics have become predominant in shaping American political culture, changing how the media and other political actors relate to the political system. American presidents, in particular, tend to be highly susceptible to the perceived growing tide of scandal as their political fortunes are often linked to such events. This is especially true of certain presidents who tend to be shrouded in accusations. The resulting legal skirmishes have given an avenue to the venom in partisan politics for a generation since Watergate.

My book, The Institutional Effects of Executive Scandal, takes a systematic look at the universe and scope of executive scandals, the nature of these scandals, the reaction of the participants to these scandals and the effect on the political system at both the state and national levels. Given the continual presence and the importance of scandal and the toll that such events have on cooperation, bargaining and the arc of political careers, we need to better understand the dynamics of what shapes the duration of a scandal, the way scandals affect the executives’ capacity to govern and the strategic choices executives make in confronting scandal.

This book will help to clarify our understanding of the dimensions of how scandals shape the political environment (and the aftermath) at both the state and national levels. It specifically explores the frequency of scandals at the state and national levels affecting both governors and presidents from 1972 to 2012, how these scandals cause executives to react to allegations, conditions under which executives and related officials “survive” scandals, the effect of scandals on policy and political actions, the effect of scandal on executive-legislative relations and the reaction of the legal system to scandals. These topics give us a broader perspective on why scandal is important and the specific effects on governing in the political system.

In the aftermath of scandal, political actors demonstrate a robust institutional resiliency, and although political accountability is often compromised, the political system responds with additional scrutiny. Indeed, chief executives are generally more likely to adapt than retrench. Executives react expectedly to scandals, dictated by their central position in the political system. Both presidents and governors respond aggressively to revelations of scandal, large and small, by adapting their behavior and using the powers of their office to demonstrate political fortitude. Although the institutions of government survive these crises, democratic accountability, the lifeblood of the public political system, is often limited by scandal. Scandals involving presidents or governors are more likely to be met with obfuscation rather than truth telling (especially if the scandal is serious), nominees involved in scandal are permanently thwarted and more legislative allies and political stonewalling leads to greater political survival. The system, though, bends but doesn’t break in the aftermath of these crises; the system maintains good health and is responsive in predictable ways. The system reacts to investigate and admonish further wrong doing in the aftermath of scandals: more legislative hearings are held to probe wrongdoing and more investigations by internal and external agencies are conducted. Ultimately, the institutional ramifications for executive scandals demonstrate impressive adaptability by the actors involved and the system at large.

Brandon Rottinghaus is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Houston. His primary research and teaching interests include the presidency, the media, public opinion, executive-legislative relations and research methods. His substantive interests are in how presidents and Congress work together to manage policy, presidential unilateral action, executive scandal and how presidents lead with their rhetoric. His work has appeared in Journal of Politics, Public Opinion Quarterly, Political Research Quarterly, Political Science Quarterly, Political Communication, PS: Political Science, Electoral Studies, American Politics Research, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Congress and the Presidency, White House Studies, American Review of Politics. He is the author of The Provisional Pulpit: Modern Conditional Presidential Leadership of Public Opinion (Texas A&M University Press).

Latin America – Corruption and the Executive Office II

I have written before about the relationship between corruption and the executive office in Latin America. Across the region, presidents have often been accused and impeached for corruption while occupying the executive office. For example, this year alone, Guatemalan ex-President Alfonso Portillo was sentenced to five years in prison in the US for taking bribes from Taiwan. In April in El Salvador, it was announced that evidence had emerging linking former president Francisco Flores to illegal and hidden bank accounts. Argentine Vice-President, Amado Boudou, appeared in court in June to respond to allegations that he illegally halted bankruptcy proceedings against a company that he supposedly had an interest in.

Explanations for the persistence of corruption in the presidential office in Latin America range from history and the evolution of a permissive political culture across the region to the combination of PR electoral systems and presidentialism.[1] Latin American executives often need to deal with uncooperative legislatures and so at times, corruption can appeal as the easiest way for the executive to pursue their agenda. The prototypical example of this dynamic can be found in the Mensalão scandal in Brazil.

Given this level of corruption in the highest political office, it is no surprise that many Latin American countries languish in the bottom half of Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perception Index.

Now, two new cases of alleged corruption, which are related to the executive office in Latin America, have come to light. The first of these involves the embattled president of Mexico, Enrqiue Peña Nieto. Peña Nieto was already facing huge political pressure over the disappearance of 43 students in Iguala. Now, his wife and former soap star, Angélica Rivera, has become embroiled in a scandal concerning a mansion she purchased in 2012, and Grupo Higa, a government contractor. In November, Higa, as part of a larger consortium, was awarded a US$4 billion contract to construct a high-speed rail project. It has now emerged that Rivera purchased her house form a unit of Higa, and she has yet to hand over a sizable portion of the asking price. Higa still hold the deeds to the house. As a recent news story succinctly put it: “So the first lady’s mansion is owned by a construction company that has bid successfully for government contracts.” The government has strenuously denied any wrongdoing. The story is not going away however. On Friday, the Mexican Finance Minister, Luis Videgaray, was implicated in a similar house buying scandal.

The other scandal is even larger. Petrobras, the Brazilian state energy behemoth, was allegedly used in an elaborate kick-back scheme, where money from inflated contracts was channeled back to the governing Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT). Thirty-five people, including top executives from Petrobras, have already been charged, and this schandal could have long-lasting and wide-ranging implications for the PT and president Dilma Rousseff. Currently, despite the efforts of the opposition, Dilma has remained above the scandal. She denies any knowledge of the kickback scheme, just as Lula did during the Mensalão scandal. It is expected that this story  will only get bigger.

One thing is for sure however. Corruption in the presidential office in Latin America remains a serious problem.

[1] For example, see For example, some of the chapters in Walter Little and Eduardo Posada-Carbó (eds.) 1996. Political Corruption in Europe and Latin America. Palgrave Macmillan or Jana Kunicová and Susan Rose-Ackerman. 2005. Electoral Rules and Constitutional Structures as Constraints on Corruption. British Journal of Political Science, 35: 573-606.