Territorial corruption is a phenomenon that is similar in many ways to examples of corruption on a national or international scale, however it presents certain differences when it comes to the capacity of local governments to handle incidences of corruption and the proximity of members of the public to local government activities (OECD, 2021). The life of Robert Moses, and his actions as a public servant in the city of New York throughout the 20th century, are presented to us as the prism through which we could view these vicissitudes, allowing us to demonstrate many of the reasons why regional territories may be more susceptible/vulnerable or resistant to corrupt activities carried out by their officials.

According to the organization Transparency for Colombia, between January 2016 and July 2018 there were 327 reported acts of corruption. Of these, it is observed that “69% of the acts are within a municipal scope, 25% at a departmental level and 6% of the remaining acts correspond to acts with a national scope.” (Transparency for Colombia, 2019, p. 11). Territorial corruption is enormous, in the document “Great Findings 2014-2018” from the Comptroller General of the Republic, the size of the problem is evident:

“Audits carried out by the Comptroller’s Office also made it clear that white elephants continue to exist today (amounting to over 800 billion Colombian pesos in possible royalties and patrimonial damages), where the royalties that are due have been divided into thousands of small projects which has meant that Colmobia has lost the opportunity to build major strategic projects, and where the balance on unexecuted funds reached up to $13 billion Colombian pesos at the end of 2017. The money in the bank and yet the country needing so much.”

(General Comptroller of the Republic, 2018)

Territorial corruption has had a very significant impact on the country. In the same report detailing these major findings, the Comptroller’s Office referred to the School Food Programs – known as PAE – highlighting that their organization had opened “154 fiscal responsibility processes with a total value of  almost $84,000 million Colombian pesos and where five Governors, two Mayors, three Members of Congress, six former Governors and 52 former Mayors are involved.” (General Comptroller of the Republic, 2018, p. 67). All tax losses investigated by the Comptroller come from the General Participation System, a fund that seeks to guarantee compliance with the functions afforded to territorial entities via different constitutional and legal provisions.

The aforementioned General Participation System allocates money to Departments and Municipalities as they are in charge of: providing education services for preschool, primary and secondary levels; managing and coordinating the health sector and the General Social Security System for Health; carrying out various activities related to the promotion of public health and prevention measures directed at the population within its jurisdiction; the expansion, rehabilitation and improvement of the public services infrastructure; promoting and supporting social interest housing programs or projects; building and maintaining the municipal transportation infrastructure, including urban, suburban and village roads, as well as all others owned by the municipality, alongside wider port, river and maritime facilities, airports and land transportation terminals; adopting the necessary measures for the control, preservation and defense of the environment in the municipality, in coordination with the relevant regional autonomous corporations; and guaranteeing a catering service for students in their jurisdiction, among other functions established in Law 715 of 2001.

The day-to-day life of members of the public is affected by the power yielded by these regional and territorial organizations. To this end, territorial corruption affects the nutrition of students, the way in which we receive water, gas or electricity, the way in which we move around and interact with our urban space, and even the provision of health services to students and other members of the public. The immediate impact of territorial corruption on the quality of life of members of the public living in the region is so marked because their work is so closely tied to the vital services and infrastructure which are integral to day-to-day life.

No one demonstrates the impact and particularity of territorial corruption like Robert Moses, called by many the “master builder of New York” (Flint, A, 2011). Despite hailing from another country in another century, his figure and story is presented as a warning call for the consequences of corruption at a local level.

Towards the end of his career as a public servant, Robert Moses led the construction of public works for a total of $224,308,706,896 dollars (figure adjusted for inflation); he also influenced the public policies of the nation, promoting concepts of urban regeneration, highways, urban areas and an extensive network of public parks. At one point during his career as an Administrator, he had an area of ​​103,071 acres (or 417 square kilometers) under his direct control – an area larger than the urban perimeter of Barranquilla. Beyond the geographical extent of his sphere of influence, his power over authorities, who had an annual income of $213,000,000 dollars at the time, was evident. (Caro, 1975).

Robert Moses’ influence led to substantial reforms to the Constitution of the State of New York, where he grew the power of public authorities (including limiting public access to information on their finances), embodied the figure of a technical and apolitical official, and he even challenged the authority of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Caro, 1975).

Robert Moses also built bridges at cost overruns of up to forty million dollars (in the rates of that time), drove over 250,000 people from their homes in order to build highways, crippled all of the New York City’s public transportation systems, encouraged low-density development and the monopoly of the automobile as a solution for the suburbs, and preached to the whole world about a new development model whereby the car, rather than people, was established as the central component of public works. His urban regeneration projects led to the construction of housing that could be called “social housing” but which was built to negligible standards, dividing cities and creating “ghettos” in places where previously diverse neighborhoods existed. Ultimately, he laid the groundwork for the destruction of America’s urban centers (Caro, 1975).

This document looks to analyze the dynamics of territorial corruption in Colombia against the backdrop of the influence that a figure like Robert Moses had on the public policies of the city and State of New York, and the impact that it had on the daily life of millions of people. Observing the dynamics that lead to corruption in territorial entities throughout their existence not only sheds light on key aspects that facilitate the concentration and hoarding of power/influence and how that might lead to resources being inappropriately diverted, but it may also allow us to better understand the situation described by the Comptroller in his “Great Findings” report.

The parallels between Robert Moses and the structures of territorial corruption that are formed in the country allow us to have a starting point from which to analyze the elements that facilitate these structures and the effects that they can have on members of the public. In particular, there are two instances where this is particulary evident: i) the importance of contracting and control of public investment to co-opt power and the State (Transparencia por Colombia, 2019), and ii) access to information and its relation to corruption (Transparency International, 2006, p. 5).

Contracts and Control

Corruption is a complex phenomenon since it can be presented as “petty corruption” or “major corruption”. In particular, “major corruption” is usually found to have taken place when referring to “acts committed at the highest levels of government that involve the distortion of policies or central functions of the State, and that allow leaders to benefit at the expense of the common good” (Transparencia por Colombia, 2017). Large-scale corruption does not seek immediate economic benefits, but rather has as its objective the systematic accumulation of power until it can influence state policies and the entities in charge of spending the budget.

In this country, this type of corruption occurs consistently both at a national and local level. In the report “This is how corruption moves: X-raying acts of corruption in Colombia 2016-2018”, Transparencia por Colombia highlights this reality:

“(…) corruption in Colombia is a structural and systemic phenomenon that is present in national, municipal and departmental public management. The actors involved mostly represent the State and governments, but representatives of the private sector and members of citizen organizations are also involved, as well as, in many cases, actors from the armed conflict and illegal economies. The objective of corruption usually goes beyond pursuing a profit interest, it is part of the forms of action of different groups to access and manage power, be it political or economic, legal or illegal.”

(Transparencia por Colombia, 2019, p. 73)

The relationship between corruption and access to power is a component that is very much present in Colombia’s political ecosystem. In the country, the predominance of regional forces and their seizure of the political apparatus is seen as a dominating, if not predominant, problem. The political and economic benefits enable these actors to look to consolidate their political prevalence and control over the administration in a certain territory, seeking to expand their economic gains or even to guarantee impunity (National Planning Department, 2014).

The co-option of regional political power by a group can lead to a number of problems for both members of the public and the territorial administration itself. During his 50 years as a public official, Robert Moses was able to co-opt a large percentage of political power in both the State and the city of New York. The construction of projects such as the “Henry Hudson Bridge” were a sign of his power, as he combined federal, State and city resources to ensure its construction.

Fiorello La Guardia, who was New York’s Mayor at the time when Moses finished consolidating his power, expressed his admiration towards him for his work as an an extraordinary public official. However, his managerial ability would have been impossible without his vast political influence. By the time the Hudson Bridge was unveiled in 1936, Moses controlled virtually every bag of concrete that was poured into the city, employed thousands of builders, and spent millions of public dollars on construction, engineering, and consulting contracts (Flint, 2011, p. 35).

His influence over legislative projects at a State and local level enabled Moses to be able to organize New York’s political structure in such a way as to allow him almost total control over the management of key areas within its administrative structure. One of the most effective moments of his control over the regional administrative structure occurred when he was appointed State Parks Commissioner, whilst he was already City Parks Commissioner. New York State law prohibited an official from being appointed to positions at a local and State level at the same time.

However, due to the large number of projects that Moses had carried out thus far in his career (including Jones Beach, one of the largest public parks ever to be created in the United States to-date), both the press and several of the State legislators supported his appointment. The power he had amassed from building parks and highways enabled Robert Moses to bend the norms and precedents in his region. Upon being appointed Commissioner of both jurisdictions, he was able to appoint himself to the Board of Directors of several entities and control a series of works, projects and functions that allowed him to receive enormous sums of money and decide, without any further oversight or control from other entities, the manner in which they were spent (Expensive, 1975).

Robert Moses assumed the leadership of various different bureaucratic organs of the city and State, and, as a result, he was able to take unilateral decisions in direct opposition to the popularly elected officials. Leveraging the political and economic influence gained in the State legislative body, he was able to manipulate the rules to the point of not really having an official or entity that could control or even supervise the spending of the budget that he assigned himself. (Expensive, 1975)

To establish himself in power, he used road layouts to inform Long Island politicians about the land that would be purchased by the State for the construction of their roads. He also reported on those parts of the islands that would benefit commercially from the  new road access and which would be attractive to attract new construction. Despite the fact that their intentions were never clear, it is true that, on several occasions, after meetings between Moses and lawyers or important politicians in the counties of Nassau and Suffolk, they formed companies dedicated to the purchase of land on the lines drawn by the “master builder”. (Expensive, 1975)

From the initial economic power, networks of influence were constructed that permeated the local political apparatus. Then the local political apparatus changed the rules of the game and administrative systems were developed that allowed for the co-option of power. So, this co-option of power in turn lead to greater economic power. Moses’ work at a local level gave him the economic and political influence that allowed him to spend Federal funds and even directly confront the President. Regulatory changes arising from the misuse of influence and power are tropes that are repeated throughout Latin American countries.

Institutional instability has been one of the predominant elements in Latin American politics for decades, leading not only to changes in those in the Executive, but also in the judiciary (Basabe-Serrano, S., & Curvale, C., 2016) . In Colombia, two changes in particular have been observed in the Presidential re-election system during the 20th century, and there have been over 40 legislative acts that seek to modify the political charter during the 31 years that it has been in force. Within the regulatory changes we observe territorial issues such as the modification of the political regime of the capital in terms of councillers, the election system, and the definition of the metropolitan area, or the creation of several special districts. Regulatory and constitutional instability is a central element in the political landscape of Latin America and Colombia. Regarding the influence that regulatory changes have on the accumulation of power and political instability that lead to corruption, we can identify the following:

“(…) constitutional instability weakens principals’ ability to monitor and control agents holding positions of power and enables the creation of mechanisms to protect those who are corrupt. In such conditions, de jure limitations on political decision-making are unlikely to result in de facto limits. This may be particularly relevant in the context of Latin America and the Caribbean where constitutions have been amended and replaced much more frequently than in Europe and most parts of Asia; in a number of cases, voters have even expressed their support for removing these constitutional mechanisms”.

(From Viteri Vázquez, A. S., & Bjørnskov, C, 2020).

Regulatory instability and political influence is an all-too present element in the Latin American regulatory and institutional panorama. When observing the possible impact that its predominance might have, it is of paramount importance to analyze the causes and consequences of corruption in the regions and the wider country. Moses’ changes to New York law allow us to see the extent to which it can occur. The erosion of any normative control over the actions of the American official resembles the major problems we face in our country, giving us a window into our own history.

Information and Influence

Access to information is one of the necessary elements to combat corruption, and it constitutes a basic input of public information that is easily accessible to members of the public seeking oversight. Without publicly accessible documents, it is almost impossible to exercise true citizen control and oversight over the government. This is exacerbated at a territorial level since the pressure that the inhabitants of a territory are able to place on these entities can be reduced by the presence of strong political structures that control the norms and institutions, as has just been observed. The OECD, in its document entitled “Corruption Prevention at Local Level in Eastern Europe and Central Asia”, has referred precisely to this situation:

“The practices of local governments with regard to the management of assets and municipally owned enterprises show that clarity about what is owned and transparency about how it is used are the cornerstones of prevention of corruption in this area. With regard to assets such as real estate, ensuring easy public access to information alone can sometimes be a deterrent against their misuse for private benefit. With regard to municipally-owned enterprises, a more complex set of good corporate standards is essential. The relative scarcity of information provided by authorities on local corporate governance suggests the need to further tackle corruption risks by merit-based selection of board members of enterprises, clear goal setting, monitoring of performance, introducing internal anti-corruption procedures and adhering to other internationally. recognized practices.” (OECD, 2021).

As stated by the OECD, access to information is one of the fundamentals in the prevention of acts of corruption, and the fact that the documents pertaining to these entities are public serves preventatively as a deterrent. Knowing which properties correspond to which entities, and the management of the money, means that a path can be traced that tracks decisions taken by officials. Without access to this, any investigations by journalists or members of the public are somewhat compromised  and greatly weakened.

Of all of the people living and working in New York City during the 20th Century, no one understood this better than Moses, who again presents himself as the perfect example of how to understand the true consequences of institutions that avoid full public control. In the State and city of New York, as in Colombia, all public entities were required to have all their documentation made available to the public, that is to say a record of their activity could be easily accessed by citizens if they wanted to observe  whether there were any irregularities. However, the public authorities led by Moses did not operate in this way: they were constituted as private corporations and as such their documents were sealed from public view and oversight. (Expensive, 1975). For example, the “Triborough Bridge” was constituted according to legislation written by Moses, which is why all its documents were private.

In 1959, several reporters could be seen waiting in the summer heat in front of the “Triborough Bridge”, standing in front of a door waiting for it to open for the slightest chance to look through thousands of previously private documents as evidence that could condemn the man who was previously considered untouchable. As a result of a wide-ranging media spat over permits to perform outdoor plays in “Central Park”, Robert Moses bowed to public pressure and handed over (though not without first deleting a large amount of information) the documents of one of the most far-reaching urban regeneration projects in the history of the United States to his offices in “Triborough”: that is to say, he shared the application of “Title I” of the “Federal Housing Act” of 1949 in the city of New York.

After hours waiting in front of Moses’ headquartered offices, the reporters were finally able to enter, where they discovered mountains of meaningless papers. But buried in the paperwork, they decided to investigate the first public documents of Moses’ administrative actions over the last decades. Under the “Mid-Harlem” project, reporters found that a man named Louis I. Pokrass had applied to support the urban regeneration project and that his application had been approved. The reporters also found that Pokrass was part of the city’s organized crime network. The publication of this alleged relationship was the beginning of the end for Robert Moses, since access to information by the press later lead to the discovery of more documentation about the corrupt acts of the Parks Commissioner, and therefore a greater understanding of the management of the city’s finances. (Expensive, 1975)

Access to information is an essential element for building a better democracy and preventing acts of corruption. A simple document amongst a mountain of paperwork was the beginning of a series of investigations that unmasked one of the most prominent public figures in New York City. Without information, citizen oversight becomes impossible and acts of corruption become invisible to the public eye. Transparency is necessary in order to better understand the management of money and power at the territorial level.

Call to attention

The life of Robert Moses serves as a wake-up call to the way in which the territories are managed in Colombia. If the co-option of power by political groups or individuals is permitted to take place, then it is not possible to have a true administrative system that prevents acts of corruption. The relationship between corruption and money must also be seen from the constant accumulation of powers and the administrative discretion in which this is able to happen. Access to information and transparency are also a fundamental element in building a truly powerful civil society, reviewing public documents and managing State money. If shady behavior is allowed in the management of resources, then corruption thrives and grows.

The prevalence of political clans in territorial government structures in Colombia has led to the existence of non-State political structures that exercise real and effective control over the territory (Eaton, K., & Prieto, J., 2017). The apparent effectiveness with which these structures operate contrasts with the historical actions of the central State.

The territorial decentralization brought about by the 1991 Constitution expanded the influence of these political structures over resources and political power due to the previously mentioned distribution of national resources to the territorial entities. Warnings from the past, by Robert Moses, allows us to identify the problems that may prevail in the present and future of the country. No matter the efficiency with which the works are delivered, or the management capacity that an official or political clan has, democratic control and access to information cannot be the rule under which territorial resources are managed. We can’t wait for 50 reporters to turn up beside a bridge, stadium, or building to search for buried papers. Territorial transparency must be the objective, lest we end up like New York!