This Week in Government Corruption
By Benjamin Wachs
Any week Ed Jew pleads guilty is a good week in my book. But his pathetic excuse --“I shook down people for bribes because everybody was doing it” -- is surprisingly plausible.
Here’s a quick rundown of other public officials (at every level) who have been accused and/or convicted of abusing their offices for personal gain over the last week (or so):
• On Friday, L.A. City Commissioner Leland Wong was sentenced to five years in state prison. He’d been receiving monthly payments of $5,000 from a Taiwanese shipping firm hoping to get a good lease at the Los Angeles port. He was convicted on counts of bribery, conflict of interest, perjury and embezzlement.
• It was announced yesterday that Massachusetts’ Speaker of the House is under investigation to determine whether he didn’t report more than $1.8 million in lobbying fees.
• Late last week the Justice Department re-indicted David Safayian, the former chief of staff for the federal government’s General Services Administration and a former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, for making false statements and obstructing justice. All charges stem back to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.
• Hey, did you hear the one about the Governor of Alaska and Vice-Presidential candidate who used the power of her office to pursue personal vendettas? I bet you did!
• I bet you’ve also heard the one about New York’s Governor resigning over a prostitution scandal. There’s nothing really new about that, but New York still deserves special mention because, in addition to Spitzer, New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has been investigated numerous times for conflicts of interest, and it was recently disclosed that he flies back and forth from NYC to Albany through Washington D.C., on the taxpayer’s dime, so that he can rack up more frequent flier miles.
And in addition to Spitzer and Silver, recently retired New York State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno is being investigated by the FBI for business dealings. That means that until two of them resigned EVERY ONE of New York’s top 3 politicians was under investigation for corruption.
• And, of course, there’s Detroit’s former mayor, who was only allowed to leave jail while wearing GPS tracking.
Pretty fun, huh? If nothing else, cultures of endemic government corruption are good for a laugh. And a cry.
Can anything be done? Well, punitive measures are always good, but they obviously don't do the job alone.
Public financing of campaigns might be a good start, because in politics, much like prostitution, removing the money tends to remove the incentive to screw the people who put you there. There’s some good news on that front, as Connecticut’s relatively new public financing program appears to be going great guns, making it one of the most successful in the nation. If they can successfully put some distance between lobbyists (temptation) and politicians (weak-willed delayed adolescents), it can only help.
However, San Francisco’s public financing system doesn’t seem likely to do the job – in fact, if anything, it’s created more potential scandals: ever notice how every potentially serious candidate to qualify for it is investigated and fined? The Byzantine rules and unyielding viciousness of the politically appointed volunteers (cough cough) who run the thing actually discourage good candidates from accessing the system.
Put another way: If Nelson Mandela were to run in San Francisco, the Ethics Committee would find an excuse to fine him too … meaning that people like Nelson Mandela are that much less likely to get into politics here.
So ironically, while the best approach to addressing political corruption in most of the country is to support public campaign financing programs, the best approach in San Francisco may be to tear it down and start over. It won't help kick bad people out of office, but it might help elect more good people, which at some level is the same thing.