Monday, December 15, 2008

Shocked About the Blagojevich Scandal? You Shouldn’t Be

By Stuart Rothenberg

Much like the feigned outrage that Capt. Louis Renault (actor Claude Rains) exhibited in the movie “Casablanca” at the idea that gambling was going on in Rick’s Café Americain, the shock that Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) hasn’t been entirely ethical is a bit hard to take.

Blagojevich has been the subject of an extensive FBI investigation for years, at least going back to October 2005, when the Chicago Tribune reported on a grand jury investigation into the administration’s hiring practices. And many politically aware Illinois residents, from businessmen to political insiders, have been joking that it’s not a matter of “if” but “when” Blagojevich heads to the slammer.

Of course, nobody could have expected that the governor was so bold as to talk to associates about how he might profit financially from the “sale” of Barack Obama’s Senate seat, so surprise about that is in order.

There has been plenty of speculation about how Blagojevich, and New York Gov. David Paterson (D), for that matter, might benefit politically from Senate appointments, ingratiating themselves with certain groups or removing potential political rivals from the field of play. But that’s generally regarded as fair game, since money isn’t changing hands.

Still, the recent avalanche of questionable conduct — including public corruption investigations and alleged or proven criminal conduct — involving personal financial gain by elected officials is mind-boggling and more than a little unsettling and troubling.

Let’s see, Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), Bob Ney (R-Ohio), Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Frank Ballance (D-N.C.), William Jefferson (D-La.), Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) and Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) come quickly to mind.

Last April, former Newark Mayor Sharpe James (D), who also served in the state Senate, was convicted of fraud, while in September, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (D) was forced from office. In late July, the offices of Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Commissioner Jimmy Dimora (D) and Auditor Frank Russo (D) were raided by federal investigators as part of an ongoing public corruption investigation.

In Massachusetts, then-state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson (D) was indicted for extortion last month after the FBI videotaped her accepting cash from a developer and stuffing the money into her bra. She eventually resigned her seat, but weeks after the report surfaced and a day after she had been indicted.

We don’t need to go through the long litany of elected officials from New Jersey, Louisiana and Illinois, who have over the years enriched themselves and their friends, or the more recent scandal ensnaring legislators from Alaska.

And I’m certainly not going back far enough to mention Kentucky’s legislative scandal or former Illinois Gov. George Ryan (R) or former Rep. Jim Traficant (Ohio) or former Connecticut Gov. John Rowland (R) or the officeholders ensnared in the ABSCAM investigation in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The reality is that when large amounts of government money are involved, some people — including some officeholders — will take the opportunity to use their ability to influence the distribution of that money to line their own pockets.

Some states, and some communities, still have a culture of corruption that makes this possible. How many times have you heard people joke that, “Well, it’s New Jersey!” to explain an indicted officeholder?

Well, it’s not an entirely surprising comment given the bribery conviction of former Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski (D), former Hoboken Mayor Anthony Russo (D) and former Paterson Mayor Martin Barnes (D) for bribery.

Of course, New Jersey isn’t the only state with a reputation for politicians with questionable ethics.

And yet, corruption doesn’t have to be accepted as simply part of the political game.

Incoming President Barack Obama has talked about political reform and changing the way things are done, and his call for Blagojevich’s resignation is a wise move. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) certainly seems serious about cleaning up his state, and once-cynical voters have responded.

In addition, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives has seemed much tougher, at least in rhetoric, on its own Democratic colleagues who have been under a cloud than were GOP leaders on their embattled Republican colleagues when they ran the House.

If there is something to be learned it is that the lack of a vibrant two-party system seems to provide an environment in which extensive corruption can flourish. Party leaders and political associates often look the other way when they are afraid that they are going to see something unseemly, if not illegal. Political competition tends to keep everybody honest.

Second, Congress and other federal officials better pay a great deal of attention to the considerable funds that will be thrown around over the next months to try to stimulate the U.S. economy. Money, it appears, seems to attract rats, and lots of money will attract lots of rats.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on December 11, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.