Compliance Glossary

Abuse of Functions

When we elect public officials, we expect them to carry out the duties of their office in accordance with the law and to act in the best interests of the electorate. An abuse of functions, also called an “abuse of office” or “abuse of authority” happens when a person acting in an official capacity uses the powers of their office to commit an unlawful act in order to benefit themselves, advantage a third party, or punish a rival.

What is Abuse of Functions?

Abuse of functions is defined in the United Nations Convention Against Corruption as:

“…the performance of or failure to perform an act, in violation of laws, by a public official in the discharge of her or her functions, for the purpose of obtaining an undue advantage for himself or herself or for another person or entity.”

Based on this definition, we observe the following criteria for identifying an abuse of functions:

  1. The offender must be a public official.
  2. The offender must be acting in an official capacity or exercising the power of their office.
  3. The offender must violate the law, either by performing an act or failing to perform an act.
  4. The offender’s purpose must be to gain some undue advantage, whether for themselves or a related party. 

What is an Example of Abuse of Functions?

The impeachment case against former United States President Richard Nixon is possibly the most infamous example of a public figure who was accused of abusing his elected office. Three articles of impeachment were brought against Nixon in May 1972 and introduced in the House of Representatives where they received bipartisan support. 

Nixon was charged with multiple instances of abuse of functions, including:

  • Unlawfully attempting to obtain confidential tax information about his political rivals through the Internal Revenue Service
  • Unlawfully tapping the phones of his political rivals, under the guise of protecting national security
  • Establishing a special investigative unit within the white house to carry out covert operations against his political rivals
  • Unlawfully ending negotiations with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. This violated United States Public Law 92-156, which required the United States to conclude its operations in Indochina as swiftly as possible.
  • Violating the Charter of the United Nations which prohibits the United States from engaging in unilateral threats or use of force in its international relations.
  • Unlawfully authorizing the bombing of Cambodia by circumventing Congress and attempting to hide the bombing by falsifying military reports.

Despite the evidence that Nixon had engaged in a repeated pattern of abusing his functions as an elected official, he was never impeached or indicted. Nixon resigned as President on August 9th of 1974 and was granted a Presidential pardon by his successor Gerald Ford. 

Can You Prevent Abuse of Functions?

The most important protections against the abuse of functions by public officials are robust democratic systems and the rule of law. In countries with free and fair elections, a transparent legal system, and an independent judiciary, public officials are more likely to be held accountable for their actions when they commit abuses of power. 

Governments may establish anti-corruption agencies or appoint an anti-corruption minister to investigate, uncover, and expose corruption within the public sector. Whistleblower protection laws and anonymous tip lines can also be established to encourage public servants to report suspected abuses of office. In some jurisdictions, the code of conduct for public servants creates a legal requirement for them to report suspected abuses of function to the competent authorities.

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