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USC law professor has seen how corruption can lead to government failures

Abby Wood, who studies campaign finance disclosure, hopes to discover general truths about good governance

Abby Wood
Abby Wood stands near City Hall in Culver City. (Photo/Brett Van Ort)

Stories about pervasive corruption, mostly in the form of police bribery, captured the attention of Abby Wood during trips to Central America and Mexico. It struck the USC faculty member that “a country that will turn a blind eye to police corruption is also quite likely to turn a blind eye to things like wrongful imprisonment or disappearances.”

And that’s when she decided to study law at Harvard University and economic development at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, earning a JD and an MA in law and diplomacy in 2007. Seven years later, she joined the USC Gould School of Law as an assistant professor of law, political science and public policy. Her current research examines campaign finance disclosure and how we can improve government here at home.

My interest in government systems and overseeing government actors is very much about fighting corruption and government abuses.

Abby Wood

“People with law degrees understand the rules of the game. You have to understand the rules in order to ensure that government actors are not above them — that’s the rule of law,” she said. “My interest in government systems and overseeing government actors is very much about fighting corruption and government abuses.”

In the Philippines, Wood had another glimpse of how corruption leads to government failures. Wood watched the criminal trial of Joseph Estrada, a Philippine president who was ousted in a popular uprising and put under house arrest. She later contributed a chapter to the book Prosecuting Heads of State.

“I got a sense of how government officials can prey on the people they’re meant to be representing or protecting or helping,” she said.

Wood, who also earned a PhD in political science at the University of California, Berkeley, currently teaches “Administrative Law, Money in Politics and Analytical Methods for Lawyers” at USC Gould.

“I want my students to think critically about the law,” she said. “I want to know that when they leave this place, they are prepared to help make our government institutions better, either by working inside of government or bringing court challenges when government fails the people it should be protecting.”

Information matters

In her latest research on campaign finance disclosure, Wood hopes to discover “general truths about good governance and what we really need to make government more responsive to the people.”

“One of the key aspects of good governance is transparency, which is forcing information out of the government,” Wood said. “If you think information matters in democracy, then you also probably want to know who’s funding political candidates and ballot initiatives, and who’s running campaign ads. Campaign finance disclosure regulations force information to the public, which allows us to follow the money.”

According to the Supreme Court, there are various costs and benefits to campaign finance disclosure. Wood is not only testing the costs and benefits the Court has mentioned — she is also searching for others.

“Economic theory would say if you force information out of the candidate about who’s funding them, then maybe some contributors will stop giving money. There’s a privacy cost,” Wood said. “Meanwhile, the Court says the benefits of disclosure include providing information and helping to combat corruption.”

To analyze the costs of campaign finance disclosure, Wood and Douglas Spencer at the University of Connecticut School of Law compared states that made big changes in campaign finance disclosure with states that made none between the 2004 and 2008 election cycles.

Wood and Spencer asked the question: Are contributors more or less likely to drop out of the contributor pool in states that improved their disclosure? They discovered that the difference was negligible.

“Contributors were dropping out about 2 percentage points more than you’d expect — meaning that the privacy costs of campaign finance disclosure are very small indeed,” she said.

Wood’s current research explores disclosure’s benefits.

“An additional benefit the Court is not talking about yet is that voters actually care about transparency in and of itself. They reward candidates who are disclosing and I show in the lab that they will also reward candidates who disclose more information than they have to.”

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USC law professor has seen how corruption can lead to government failures

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