By Pascal Fletcher
BOCA RATON, Florida (Reuters) - Corruption, whether in the form of crooked officials, financial fraudsters or even philandering sports stars, is tearing at the fabric of U.S. society and is the country's No. 1 criminal threat, a senior FBI agent said on Tuesday.
Addressing businessmen in Florida, where financial fraud cases jumped by 42 percent in the last year, FBI Miami Division Special Agent in Charge John Gillies said failures in personal ethics and integrity sowed the initial poisonous seeds of corruption in a society.
Gillies said transgressions by high-profile public servants and even perceived social role models, like top golfer Tiger Woods, currently embroiled in allegations that he had extramarital affairs, sent the signal to young Americans that cheating and stealing were acceptable.
"Where do our children learn this? They see us, their elected officials, their sports stars, they see how they act and they figure, 'well it's OK,'" he said, citing the case of Woods, whose early morning car accident in Florida last month triggered a storm of media questioning of his clean-living reputation.
"Money can't buy everything," Gillies said in a speech to the West Boca Chamber of Commerce in Boca Raton, Florida.
The special agent, who manages high-profile cases in Florida, the Caribbean and Latin America, in no way suggested Woods had committed any criminal offenses.
Florida police issued Woods a ticket for careless driving last week and said no criminal charges would be filed. He quickly paid the $164 fine, his lawyer said. Police also said no allegations of domestic violence were leveled.
Gillies, a 27-year veteran of the FBI, called corruption in all its multiple forms, whether in law enforcement or in the judicial system, or involving tax cheats and fraudsters, "our number one criminal threat" in the United States.
"It really gets at the soul and fabric of the United States when people are out there corrupting ... it all starts with simple ethics violations," Gillies said.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
He said public corruption investigations by the FBI were "huge" and had increased by more than 20 percent in the last five years, while financial scams -- from securities and hedge fund frauds to Ponzi schemes -- had jumped by more than 25 percent nationwide in the last year alone.
These cases involved hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars.
Florida in particular has been rocked by a number of high-profile Ponzi schemes this year, including fallout from the cases surrounding convicted Wall Street swindler Bernard Madoff and accused Texas financier Allen Stanford.
Gillies' FBI team last week arrested a flamboyant Fort Lauderdale attorney, Scott Rothstein, and charged him with bilking investors out of $1.2 billion in a Ponzi scheme that funded his luxury lifestyle and political largess.
Rothstein, now disbarred, has pleaded not guilty.
Asked why the "Sunshine State" of Florida appeared to be so increasingly prone to financial scams, Gillies told Reuters the concentration of money in the wealthy Southeast state was "the number one" factor.
He said a high concentration of out-of-state Americans and foreigners was also a factor.
In his speech, Gillies also cited the economic recession as a contributing feature, as many victims were -- often blindly, often out of greed -- seeking to improve returns on money and investments in hard financial times.
He said offers of 15, 20, 25 percent returns in a recession should be an automatic "red flag" of possible fraud.
For those frustrated by diminished earnings eroded by the crisis the FBI veteran offered the following caveat against temptation: "The worst day at work is still better than the best day in jail."
(Editing by Jim Loney and Howard Goller)