LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Paul Wolfowitz is still clinging to his job as the president of the World Bank, but the controversy over his tenure may be coming to ahead this week. That controversy stems from Wolfowitz's role in securing a pay raise and a job at the state department for his girlfriend who also works for the bank. There have been reports this weekend that the bank's executive board has determined that Wolfowitz broke ethics rules. Wolfowitz is scheduled to meet with the board on Tuesday and the board could vote to fire him.

For his part, Wolfowitz claims, he's done nothing wrong. His supporters say he's being attacked by an entrenched bureaucracy at the bank that is upset by the changes he has introduced including his high-priority opposition to corruption in countries that receive World Bank loans.

All of these got us thinking about what corruption really is. And to help sort us through that, we've invited Paul Light to join us here on the studio. He is a professor at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service. Thanks a lot for coming in.

Professor PAUL LIGHT (Wagner School of Public Service, New York University): Thank you.

HANSEN: I'll start with the obvious question. Do you think what Paul Wolfowitz did is corrupt?

Prof. LIGHT: Yes. The use of one's office for personal gain, albeit, in the form of a job for a girlfriend is still corruption. And he joins a pantheon of individuals who have used their office for personal gain, whether it's in the form of getting a job for themselves in return for a favor or favorable decision, or taking a kickback or a bribe.

HANSEN: But is this really the same as taking a kickback or bribing someone?

Prof. LIGHT: It's in the same class; one's use of one's office - one's power -to impose on others or to extract from others favors. And the favors come in many shapes and sizes - from jobs for oneself to jobs for one's sons and daughters and girlfriends.

HANSEN: But I would think that someone who is actually giving a kickback or taking a bribe really knows what they are doing is wrong. Do you really think that people who get good jobs for their friends - they know it's wrong? I mean, isn't it - what about cronyism?

Prof. LIGHT: Well, there certainly is cronyism, but I think Paul Wolfowitz is a very smart man. He knew that he was using his power to extract from the State Department a job for his girlfriend. Now his girlfriend gets a pay raise, his girlfriend gets a job, Wolfowitz doesn't benefit personally from that except, I suppose, in the goodwill that it creates for him through his girlfriend's success.

HANSEN: What about motives and the kind of motive that would play a role. For example, is it more corrupt to seek personal gain as opposed to, say, political gain?

Prof. LIGHT: Well, I draw a line between this kind of corruption that goes from petty corruption to rather sizeable bundles of cash, or rather large favors and abuse of power. So I see Alberto Gonzalez's action at the Department of Justice in the firing of the prosecutors as an abuse of power - the politicization of justice. I view Wolfowitz's problem as running corruption, although it looks a little more elegant, because he really didn't receive something of significant value in a brown paper bag or in countable bills, but he did receive a favor and did use his power to extract that favor.

HANSEN: Is there a difference between abuse of power and, say, what you might call arrogance of power?

Prof. LIGHT: Well, you know, one could call it a corruption by power. You know, you fool around with these terms enough and you can tie yourself in knots. You could say that there's the petty corruption - it comes from the kind of thing that Wolfowitz did - and then there's a corruption of power that comes from the sense of invulnerability, and I think Wolfowitz have that. You know, he has the "who me?" kind of effect. I could never do anything unethical. I'm honest. What are you accusing me?

And in my experience over the years of following these kinds of scandals that it's often the appearance rather than the reality that gets you in trouble. And politicians are always coming up short on that saying, why me, and who me, in terms of these kinds of scandals.

HANSEN: Do you think there's anything that can be done about it? That people in positions of power who might not recognize when they're actually being either arrogant or abusing that power?

Prof. LIGHT: Well, I think, you have to look at yourself in the mirror in the morning and remind yourself that you're just human. And also remind yourself that you've been given a position of stewardship and it's your responsibility not just to pursue your own agenda, but to make sure the institution that you lead is better off for you than without you.

HANSEN: Paul Light teaches at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service. Thanks for coming in.

Prof. LIGHT: Thank you.

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