How Can I Prove Corruption?

Evidence is something that supports or provides proof that your “version of events” (i.e. what you are saying happened) actually happened. Evidence comes in many different forms and could include: 

  • Witness statements from people who saw or heard something to do with the corrupt act:
  • A photograph, recording or video;
  • A report from an expert, NGO, journalist, news outlet or respected organisation; or 
  • Financial records of transactions, ownership documents, assets declarations, contracts, decisions of public bodies

If you are taking action to challenge corruption you will need some evidence that a corrupt action has taken place. This section will give you some general tips on what type of evidence you might need when you’re challenging corruption and how you can gather it.


What Do I Need to Prove?

What you need to prove will depend on a number of factors:

(a) Evidence when Reporting Corruption

If you are reporting corruption to an authority, you will need some evidence to persuade the authority to investigate the issue and/or take further action. 

The exact amount of evidence you need will depend on what authority you are reporting corruption to, but less evidence will be needed compared to if you are taking legal action in court.

(b) Evidence when Taking Legal Action

If you are bringing a legal case, a higher level of evidence is needed to persuade a court, an investigative or an administrative authority that a corrupt act has occurred, and it was committed by the individual or body you say was responsible. The exact amount of evidence needed will depend on:

  • What law you are arguing has been broken. Every law has different “elements”. These are the different ingredients of an offence or breach of law that you need to prove.
  • The “standard of proof”. This determines that level of certainty with which you have to prove that something happened. For example, in criminal cases, the standard of proof is generally higher than in civil cases, so more evidence often needs to be put before a court.

(c) General Tips

Later sections in this Guide will go into more detail on these issues. However, it will generally be important to prove the following issues:

Key Considerations: 

It is often important to have evidence that shows:

  • What: What was the nature of the corrupt act (e.g. a bribe, an extortion, an embezzlement)?
  • Who: What businesses or individuals were involved in the activity that caused the harm? What role did these people occupy? (e.g. a public officer, a private or organised crime) Are there directly injured parties (e.g. whose property was embezzled) or victims?
  • How: How was entrusted authority abused? (e.g. Did an employer abuse their power in an employment relationship? Did a public official abuse their position in a public office? Was there a contractual arrangement that was abused?)
  • Where: Where did the corrupt act take place (e.g. in a public office by or in a company)?
  • When: When did the act occur, or is it still happening? 
  • Why: Why did the individual or organisation commit the act? (i.e. did they intend to commit the corrupt act? What was their motivation?)

If possible, you would also provide evidence of the consequences of the corrupt act and how the wrongdoer is responsible for the harm you suffered as a result of those actions.

What evidence you need and how you can gather it will also depend on whether you are challenging petty or grand corruption.


How Can I Gather Evidence of Petty Corruption?

Petty corruption is the type of corruption we are most exposed to; it is defined as the everyday abuse of power of public officials in their interactions with ordinary citizens. This kind of corruption takes place when citizens are trying to access basic goods or services.

Examples of Petty Corruption:

  • You are applying for a driving license or benefits from the government, and the public official asks you for a bribe to pay for a service that should be free;
  • A police officer pulls you over when you’re driving and says he will give you a speeding ticket if you don’t pay a bribe;
  • A public healthcare provider asking for money to provide a free public service; 
  • An authority gives a contract for an infrastructure project to a company that paid a bribe or has a special relationship with a public official (i.e. there is a conflict of interest);
  • A judge accepting money to give a favourable decision to one party in a case;
  • A business partner using your machinery that you lent them, as if it was their own,  for their own benefit instead of what was agreed and never returns it to you;
  • The police or prosecutors demand you pay them money to start an investigation into a crime; 
  • An investor is constructing an oversized building right next to your house, disregards numerous construction rules, zoning plan, and damages your property as a result. The construction authority refuses to look into the case, most probably due to bribes paid by the investor;   
  • An acquaintance of yours offers to get a permit for your small business from the authority, though they already refused to grant it because your company is ineligible. He says he knows people there and can arrange it for you for some money;
  • A colleague of yours “forgets” to ever return his office laptop after his dismissal; and
  • The buyer of your company takes some bribe from a stationery retailer so that he chooses their products when buying copy paper.

(a) Evidence about the Corrupt Act

The following could be useful evidence to prove that petty corruption has occurred:

  • There may be photos, videos or recordings showing a transaction has taken place or conversations that can prove the corrupt acts took place;
  • There may be a witness who heard a conversation about a payment, transaction or a corrupt act. They can give a witness statement or a testimony in court. For more information on how to prepare a witness statement, look at the A4J Note on Preparing a Witness Statement;
  • There may be documents, letters or emails that show the payment/transaction was made or that a corrupt act has occurred;
  • Accessing bank accounts or bank statements of companies/public bodies can prove that a payment has been made. You may have access to these if you are complaining about corruption within an organisation you are part of. Otherwise, access to these documents will have to be sought by law enforcement in the legal process;
  • A transfer of property could be proven by accessing records on your country’s land, shares or other registry that shows land, shares or other assets have changed hands. There may be also be documentary evidence, such as a deed, which shows that land or assets have been transferred. OR there may be evidence the person is now using the land or assets in question.

There may be evidence someone is buying things that are way beyond her/his salary (photos etc), which could raise suspicion.

Practical tip: Official Asset Declaration

In every second country, public officials (senior and low-level officials) are obligated to make public not only their income but also Official Asset Declaration to monitor their wealth variations in order to identify illicit enrichment throughout their period as public servants.  

This declaration contains a wide variety of assets, such as properties, extended loans, and savings in bank deposits and in cash. The obligation to disclose assets may also cover private entities and individuals empowered to provide public services through outsourcing.

The disclosure of public officials’ income, assets and financial interests can make a difference to strengthen your evidence before Court if a public servant or a company had a variation in his or her wealth. 

Where can I find them?

Public disclosure of declarations may take different forms. Generally, they are published in electronic format online. However, in some countries, this information is available on demand only to comply specific conditions such as introducing it as evidence in court.For more information on official asset declaration, see the World Bank’s How-to Guide on Effective Disclosure.

These are all examples of what evidence could be useful. It doesn’t mean that you have to gather all of this evidence. Sometimes, one piece of evidence will be enough to show that petty corruption has occurred. For example:

  • You may have a video of a police officer demanding a bribe; or
  • An official asset declaration may show a public official has assets that cannot be justified or explained.

Sometimes even one statement from a witness could be enough to get an authority to investigate further, even if more evidence would be needed if legal action is later taken.

In some cases, there is time between the solicitation of a bribe and the actual payment. If a trustworthy authority can be notified before the payment, they often can record a key moment of the corrupt deal that can be strong evidence.

(b) Evidence about the Role of the Wrongdoer or their Organisation

Because corruption involves the abuse of entrusted or public authority, evidence is also needed about what role the wrongdoer holds in an organisation or public body.

  • Sometimes, this will be obvious. If you have a video of a police officer taking a bribe, it will often be clear from the video that the person was a police officer.
  • Sometimes it won’t be obvious from the evidence relating to the corrupt action itself what role or position of authority the wrongdoer had. In these cases, you may need extra information to identify the wrongdoer and the role they have.

You could find information about an individual and their role in the following ways:

  • A web search of the relevant organisation/company/public body could give you information about the scope of their activities and the positions that the relevant individuals hold in an organisation/company/public body; and
  • If you want information about someone in a private company, it may be possible to access a business or company register that could help you identify the legal name of the company, senior persons in the company and financial state of a company.
  • About two thirds of the countries of the world have right to information laws. Information requests concerning various public entities or their particular departments can be helpful in gathering information. For more information, see the A4J Guide on Access to Information.

How Can I Gather Evidence of Grand Corruption?

(a) What Is Grand Corruption?

Grand corruption involves two main elements:

  • The participation of high-level public officials; and 
  • A gross misappropriation of public funds or resources. 

This sort of corruption is generally made by complex and well-established networks and, in some cases, takes place across borders. For example, if the resources allocated to basic services are embezzled, this results in  health or education priorities to remain underfunded.

(b) Evidence of Grand Corruption

It is very difficult for an individual or single organisation to uncover grand corruption through their own investigation. Grand corruption is most commonly proven when an individual or organisation pulls together different pieces of evidence that are disclosed after one or more of the following events:

  • The is a major leak of confidential information from a company or public institution;
  • A whistleblower within an organisation has released key information that was previously secret;
  • The relationship between high-level participants in a corrupt scheme deteriorate and one starts to disclose details of the corrupt deal to expose other participants as part of a “plea bargain” (i.e. when someone gives prosecutors or police information to reduce their punishment for a crime);
  • A company buys another company and the purchasing company finds evidence of corruption in their due diligence check;
  • Investigating authorities in one country give information to authorities in another country; or
  • A government changes and the corrupt acts of an old government are exposed.
  • A bank where misappropriated funds end up recognises the suspicious transactions and alerts law enforcement authorities.
  • An auditor comes across suspicious items in the books of a company that hide secret payments.

In addition, the following evidence may be helpful:

  • Evidence of several connected acts of petty corruption in an organisation that could provide possible evidence of an environment where grand corruption is taking place, such as in cases of pyramid schemes in which lower level public officials can keep only part of the bribes they take and have to hand over the rest to their superiors;
  • If companies receive public money or are in regulated sectors, they may have to file tax records or company reports on their finances. This could help get information about the financial state of a company; 
  • You can also gather bank records or statements that reveal illicit payments made by private or public institutions;
  • Testimonies of employees and executives involved in corrupt operations, such as receiving or giving payments for bribes, or conducting meetings with other co-conspirators in order  to commit corrupt acts;  
  • In some cases, public bodies publish their budgets or public contracts for projects which don’t necessarily match the reality;
  • Public bodies must keep records of all the money spent. Public bodies’  invoices may provide valuable information regarding transactions with shell companies. These receipts can be requested through “freedom of information requests”. At the same time information on thousands of shell companies are often leaked and published on the internet, which expose the ultimate beneficial owners of these companies;
  • In many cases, investigative reports made by local NGOs and journalists, which describe a corruption network, can be used as evidence; or
  • In the majority of  countries, citizens have the right to request information directly from government offices (this is known as right to information) and to access publicly available documents  that reveal the existence of a corrupt network (for more information, see “freedom of information requests”).

Practical Tip: Putting it all together

Grand corruption is rarely proved by a single piece of evidence. It is often necessary to put together a number of pieces of evidence like a jigsaw in order to demonstrate that grand corruption has taken place.

For example, you may have evidence from a whistleblower or leak that reveals suspected corruption in an organisation or government body. It can then be helpful to find “corroborating evidence” that confirms this evidence (e.g. other witness accounts) and/or specifies the roles of individuals involved (e.g. information from FOI requests or on company directories) and the value of property involved (e.g. tax records, bank statements etc). It may also be useful to get general information on those organisations, their connections and whether any changes in their financial position could be connected to the corrupt activity you are reporting.


Obeying the Law when Gathering Evidence

When gathering evidence it is important that this is not obtained through unlawful means, since this can affect the outcome of the investigation, be prejudicial for the case and amount to a criminal offence in some situations.  

Be careful not to publicly disclose protected information, such as private and confidential information, national security information or business secrets, unless there is a strong public interest in their disclosure. Even in situations where public interest in disclosure, you will need legal advice to decide whether the disclosure would be lawful in your country.

In order to obey the law when gathering evidence we strongly recommend to:

  • Gather public information published by a governmental body: public audits of public institutions, public registries, annual reports, declaration of interest statement, and public data contained in official web pages. All of these can give you relevant information for your case. 
  • Gather information from public and reliable sources: these can be investigations that have been published by a civil society organization, journalistic investigations, public audits of private companies, to name a few.
  • Gather information through recognized legal means: many countries have access to information laws that allow citizens to ask public officials for information. Through these requests you can gather evidence that is legal. Another option is the process of disclosure or discovery where someone bringing a legal action applies for a court order that the other side releases key information.
  • Witness evidence will usually be accepted/lawful unless the witness is lying or disclosing privileged information.

It’s important to check the law in your country to ensure that any evidence you have is gathered lawfully. If you would like more general information on evidence gathering, see How Can I Prove My Case? in A4J’s Going to Court: Q & A.

About Us

Action4Justice is a group of NGO’s united to support public interest litigation worldwide as a means to advance social justice.

Learn more
Our members

We seek partnerships with organizations and communities worldwide who support our goals. Join our network, or volunteer.

Learn more