The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?
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An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?
(Photo: Ingka D. Jiw/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Ingka D. Jiw/Shutterstock)

This one’s a head-shaker. In 2011 and 2012, Robert Lustyik, an Federal Bureau of Investigation agent on the counterintelligence squad in White Plains, New York (now retired), and his childhood friend Johannes Thaler, a shoe salesman at a Macy’s, solicited bribes in exchange for confidential government information that Lustyik had access to at work—and they texted and emailed about the plan in great detail the entire time.

An acquaintance of Thaler’s from Macy’s, Rizve Ahmed, paid the pair $1,000 for the FBI’s “Suspicious Activity Report” about his political rival back in his home of Bangladesh. But Lustyik and Thaler wanted much more than that; they discussed how they would sign Ahmed up on a kind of “contract” for a $40,000 “retainer” as well as a recurring monthly payment of $30,000. They even intimated that they could set up a secret informant to spy on Ahmed’s enemy, and then bring criminal charges against him.

Interestingly, Lustyik and Thaler took the precautions of both giving Ahmed a code name (“Caesar”) and only meeting him in a non-descript public place (a food court in a mall in Danbury, Connecticut). And yet they didn’t think it necessary to refrain from specifically spelling out the crimes they were committing, and when, and for how much cash, over text message and email. According to the government’s criminal complaint, one email from Lustyik to Thaler began, “So. Here is my master plan ... we use info from [a] source, within the current Bang[ladeshi] govt and sell it to caesar’s people. No one knows ... no one gets hurt.” Just to reiterate: Lustyik worked for the FBI, on the counterintelligence squad. He wrote that. In an email.

"Countries that had higher rates of tipping behavior tended to have higher rates of corruption"—even after they control for GDP and income inequality.

It went on and on. In a text-message negotiation about the contract, Ahmed wrote to Thaler, “If this works out, I will be the hero to my party!!!” and emailed them a photograph of a handful of cash. But when negotiations broke down, and Ahmed threatened to find another FBI source instead, Lustyik texted Thaler about Ahmed, “Let’s kick his ass.... I hung my ass out the window n we got nothing? ... So bottom line. I need ten gs asap. We gotta squeeze C[aesar].... [R]emind him that I deal w Interpol.”

The ill-conceived scheme caught up with the trio, somehow, and Thaler and Ahmed pleaded guilty to bribery charges in federal court last Friday. (Lustyik’s charges remain and he awaits trial.) Meanwhile, Lustyik and Thaler also pleaded guilty to a separate scheme in Utah last month; they apparently accepted $200,000 from a defense contractor in exchange for a promise to sign the contractor up as a government informant so he would be protected from an ongoing federal investigation into a shady $54 million defense contract in Afghanistan.

What were they thinking? Lustyik and Thaler were likely motivated by greed, and Ahmed by political ambition. But what made them think this was a good idea? The very particular set of thinking and expectations involved in bribery and corruption has been an occasional topic of research for economists and psychologists throughout the years—on the overall cultural, organizational, and personal levels.

Researchers have measured and studied corruption on the global scale, for instance. The World Bank has estimated that $1 trillion gets paid every year in bribes, worldwide. There’s corruption in every government in the world, but what varies is how extreme, how visible, and how tolerated it is. Researchers at the University of Toronto have made a connection between the cultural “collectivism” of a country’s population and its acceptance of bribery (as opposed to its “individualism”). It might sound counter-intuitive, but the results of their study suggest that “collectivism promotes bribery through lower perceived responsibility for one’s actions.”

Likewise, researchers writing in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Sciencehave found a correlation between the “seemingly unrelated behaviors” of voluntary tipping and bribery. Namely, “countries that had higher rates of tipping behavior tended to have higher rates of corruption”—even after they control for GDP and income inequality. The context surrounding those two acts may be different, but the expectation of a quid-pro-quo for good service rendered seems to be the same.

A duo of psychologists in Germany struggled to identify the particulars of “a corrupt organizational culture in terms of its underlying assumptions, values, and norms.” But, writing in the Journal of Business Ethics this year, they found generally that “corrupt organizations perceive themselves to fight in a war, which leads to their taken-for-granted assumption that ‘the end justifies the means.’” Wartime attitudes degrade the traditional values of the members of the group, and they start to develop rationalizations and something the authors call “ethical blindness.” Corrupt organizations also tend to protect the “social cocoon” they’ve built up by harshly punishing those members of the group who aren’t willing to join in the rule-breaking.

It seems that the structure of the organization itself can have a subconscious effect on its members, as well. When asked about kickbacks and bribes in the U.S. military, a spokesperson for the government watchdog group Project on Government Oversight said that the strict, top-down structure of the military means that commanders must work even harder to set an ethical example for their subordinates. Otherwise, corruption trickles down.

But none of this sheds much light on the curious decisions made by Lustyik and his compatriots—decisions that seem to have been influenced by personal whims rather than by organizational corruption or their national culture at large. How does a person decide whether or not to take that risk—whether one is the briber or the bribed? Mathematicians have employed game theory to map out the decision process, comparing the cost-benefit analysis of the potential money or power gained versus the risk of being caught (and the even greater chance of feeling “moral torture” over that risk in the meantime).

Their complicated mathematical calculations have mostly led them all to the same simple conclusions that psychologists and economists have reached: Punishing bribery after the fact is not a good way to stop it from happening in the future, and it will only stop when the risk outweighs the potential reward. (Some have suggested that the best way for an organization to keep its members from being susceptible to bribes is to pay them more—which is ironic, because it looks a little bit like bribing them to be honest.)

Lustyik and Thaler thought they were looking at $40,000 plus $30,000 a month, for as long as Lustyik’s FBI database access could keep Rizve Ahmed sated with secret information. That potential benefit probably outweighed the risk of their going to jail. But unfortunately for them, the pair only ever got $1,000 in a Danbury mall food court for all their trouble—and Thaler and Ahmed, at least, could be facing up to 35 years in jail.