While the recent problems in DC have been largely framed as ethical violations and lapses, the United Nations Convention against Corruption deems the DC officials' alleged offenses corrupt. The convention's list includes bribery of national public officials; illicit enrichment; trading in influence; and embezzlement, misappropriation, or other diversion of property by a public official.
According to the Transparency International report Corruption Perceptions Index 2011, the United States rates fairly "clean" in the index of 183 countries and territories. The rating of 7.1 (10 is very clean and 0 is highly corrupt) places the United States in 24th place behind the likes of New Zealand, Switzerland, and Germany.
Corruption in the District may pale in comparison to that of other countries, but the fact remains that ethical lapses undermine the authority of elected and appointed officials and detract attention from managing and governing. The DC Council is considering legislation (Bill 19-511, "Board of Ethics and Government Accountability Establishment and Comprehensive Ethics Reform Amendment Act of 2011", final committee report and committee print online) to address the issue of ethics in government.
Notwithstanding DC Council actions to address the problem, some members of the public remain skeptical that the legislation will make the positive difference people believe is needed and want. Chuck Thies, for example, advocates for the expulsion of ethical offenders holding office. Writes Thies, "Ethics reform will not be comprehensive until the D.C. Council creates a mechanism for expelling members who break laws or bring shame on the institution and our city."
What we know about corruption is that it is often hard to identify, time going by—sometimes years—before enough evidence is found. That's why Transparency International uses perceived levels of public sector corruption in their annual report. According to Transparency International,
The 2011 index draws on assessments and opinion surveys carried out by independent and reputable institutions. These surveys and assessments include questions related to the bribery of public officials, kickbacks in public procurement, embezzlement of public funds, and the effectiveness of public sector anti-corruption efforts. Perceptions are used because corruption is to a great extent a hidden activity that is difficult to measure. Over time, perceptions have proved to be a reliable estimate of corruption.