AMERICANS BECOMING MORE CROOKED

By LARA JAKES JORDAN, Associated Press Writer Thu Apr 17, 7:39 PM ET

WASHINGTON - The FBI is grappling with growing numbers of public corruption cases and a surge in mortgage fraud investigations, FBI Director Robert Mueller said Thursday, wondering aloud whether Americans are "becoming more crooked."

In a speech to the American Bar Association, Mueller asked the assembled defense lawyers for help in "creating a culture of integrity" by reporting evidence of wrongdoing by politicians and corporate executives alike.

"Anyone who follows the news these days and sees repeated references to corporate fraud and public corruption might think the nation is in the midst of a moral crisis," Mueller told the defense attorneys. "Have we as a society become more corrupt? Or have we in the FBI simply become more adept at rooting out fraud and corruption?"

Currently, the FBI has 2,500 cases of public corruption under investigation, an increase of 50 percent from five years ago, Mueller said. He called public corruption the FBI's top criminal priority.

At the same time, corporate fraud cases have increased by more than 80 percent, Mueller said, pointing to the recent surge in mortgage fraud investigations. The FBI is investigating an estimated 1,300 mortgage fraud cases including 19 into subprime lending practices by U.S. financial institutions.

In his speech, titled "Corporate Fraud and Public Corruption: Are We Becoming More Crooked?" Mueller predicted that the surge is far from over.

"We likely will see more corporate fraud cases in the months to come, because of the ripple effect of the subprime crisis and its impact on the credit market," he said.

During a question-and-answer session after the speech, Mueller said he favored Justice Department policy crediting firms that voluntarily waive their right to withhold confidential communications between attorneys and their corporate clients during investigations.

The ABA opposes the policy, which Congress is considering overturning.