“…this Court now concludes that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption. That speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that those officials are corrupt. And the appearance of influence or access will not cause the electorate to lose faith in this democracy. “ – Justice Anthony Kennedy in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, 2010.
Generally speaking there are two types of political scandal: the sex scandal and the money scandal.
The first type of scandal, perhaps for obvious reasons, gets more attention from public and press. Think of Bill Clinton and the blue dress, Mark Sanford hiking the Appalachian Trail all the way to his Argentine mistress, General David Petraeus going all in with his biographer (and sharing much more than pillow talk) and, of course, the continuing saga of former Senator Larry Craig’s wide stance in the Minneapolis airport. One could go on and on – Packwood, Weiner, Edwards – it is a long, long and bipartisan list.
The other type of scandal – the money scandal – is generally less memorable, but also more important. Political sex sells and fuels late night comedy. Political money merely corrupts. Like political sex scandals, political money scandals are a bipartisan problem and unlike what Justice Kennedy naively (or cynically) wrote in that Supreme Court decision, vastly expanded access to money and private influence in our politics has, and will continue to erode “faith in this democracy.”
Several recent cases still in the news make the point: Illinois Representative Aaron Schock, former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, would-be president Hillary Clinton and Senator Robert Menendez or, if you prefer, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey are in the top-of-mind scandal class. (It probably goes without saying that in any list of political scandals involving money, New Jersey is routinely entitled to two mentions.)
Schock is the junior Republican from Peoria who first came to national prominence when a Washington Post story reported on the elaborate Downton Abbey-like redecorating of his Capitol Hill office, a real estate makeover that likely constituted an illegal gift. It didn’t take long for the deep red walls and Edwardian touches to gave way to more important insights into Schock’s extensive connections to his wealthy donors. As the Post reported recently, the Congressman’s Lord Grantham moment “prompted a flurry of stories about his use of private charter planes that he says are to get around his district, concert ticket purchases, trips overseas and other forms of travel.” Expensive tastes are hardly an indictable offense, but failing to report gifts from donors or using their airplanes improperly may well be and Schock has now announced his resignation, likely just before his indictment.
There have been so many twists and turns to the sad and bizarre Kitzhaber saga in Oregon that is has become difficult to keep track of all of them, but it seems clear that an underlying theme in the tangled web that drove the four-time elected governor from office was…wait for it…money.
Kitzhaber’s fiancée seems to have been obsessed by making money and oblivious to how her public role created conflicts, or worse, for the couple. In another case, as reported by Willamette Week, Kitzhaber courted one of his biggest campaign donors, a developer who had given candidate Kitzhaber more than $65,000 since 2010, by attending a “summit” organized by the donor, who incidentally regularly complained to the governor about state environmental regulators. As the paper noted following the “summit,” which Kitzhaber had flown to on the donor’s private plane, the then-governor “asked a fundraising consultant how much money [the big donor] had given his re-election campaign so he could hit up another summit attendee…for the same amount.”
The Hillary Clinton case is even more obtuse, but no less troubling, involving Clinton the Secretary of State, Clinton the world famous mover and shaker of the Clinton family foundation (which has received millions from corporate and foreign sources) and coming to a campaign trail near you soon, Clinton the presidential candidate. If you think the recent flap over Hillary’s emails (particularly the ones that have been destroyed) doesn’t involve the intersection of her official work at the State Department and her work, as well as her husband’s and daughter’s, with the high flying Clinton foundation, and now the need to raise a billion dollars or so to run for the White House, well I have some aluminum siding I’d like you to consider.
A CBS New investigation found that one donor to the Clinton Foundation, “Rilin Enterprises – pledged $2 million in 2013…The company is a privately-held Chinese construction and trade conglomerate and run by billionaire Wang Wenliang, who is also a delegate to the Chinese parliament…The firm owns a strategic port along the border with North Korea and was also one of the contractors that built the Chinese embassy in Washington. That contract is a direct tie to the Chinese government.” We haven’t heard the last of these kinds of stories and she hasn’t even announced.
Senator Menendez’s scandal seems to involve more garden-variety type corruption – doing big favors for a big donor. For months the Justice Department has been looking into the connection between the Soprano State senator and a wealthy South Florida eye doctor, Salomon Melgen, who clearly loves Menendez. As Slate has noted, the doc and his family “gave $33,700 to Menendez’s 2012 re-election campaign, as well as $60,400 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee while Menendez served as its chairman during the 2010 election cycle. But the biggest contribution by far was a series of three payments totaling $700,000 that Melgen’s business gave in 2012 to Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC that in turn shoveled nearly $600,000 toward Menendez’s re-election that year. Melgen also paid for two free trips that Menendez took in 2010 to Melgen’s seaside mansion in the Dominican Republic,” a gift that Menendez did not initially disclose, but for which he later paid $58,500 to reimburse.
And what did the donor get beside the stimulating company of a United States Senator? “In recent years,” Slate reports, “Menendez repeatedly interceded on Melgen’s behalf in a dispute with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services over allegations that Melgen had overbilled Medicare for millions of dollars for injections he was performing on patients with macular degeneration. Menendez has also been pressing on Melgen’s behalf to help him see through a deal he has to sell port-screening equipment to the Dominican government.”
The latest Chris Christie greasiness in New Jersey rings of the kind of thing that the notorious Boss Tweed did across the Hudson more than a century ago – hand out tax breaks, contracts and other goodies to the politically well-connected and then sit back and reap the rewards. As the Associated Press reported this week, on Governor Christie’s watch, “New Jersey has authorized more than $2 billion in economic development tax breaks since 2014, often to corporations with notable political connections. One grant went to a developer who owes millions of dollars on an unpaid state loan.”
Christie’s administration lavished more than $600 million in tax breaks on Camden, New Jersey, (population 77,000) an amount four times the city’s annual budget. As AP notes, “As money has flowed to development in Camden, some trickled back into politics. Camden tax incentive recipients donated more than $150,000 to the Republican Governors Association during the time Christie ran it. But no donations are as notable as those from Pennsylvania developer Israel Roizman. Last February, the state awarded tax incentives worth $13.4 million to Broadway Associates 2010 LLC, a real estate development company he controls. The project in question: refurbishing 175 low-income housing units that deteriorated under two decades of Roizman’s ownership.”
It turns out Roizman – and here is proof that the acrid stench of corruption smells of bipartisanship – was a big “bundler” of campaign cash for Barack Obama, but also thoughtfully “donated $10,000 to the Christie-led [Republican] governors association in late 2013, a few months before receiving his tax breaks. Last year, he gave the group the same amount.” Meanwhile, the developer owes the New Jersey housing agency “$6.2 million in unpaid loans on another Camden housing project.”
There may be perfectly simple explanations for all these unrelated cases and it would not be correct to say the corrosive Citizens United decision alone ushered in a new era of corruption in our politics. The country’s convoluted campaign finance apparatus is so complex that it has spawned an entire industry of lawyers and consultants who make it their life’s work to navigate the system.
Still, to believe that cases like Schock, Kitzhaber, Clinton, Menendez, Christie and many others can be innocently explained away, one must accept the idea that really wealthy people give money to political candidates simply out of the goodness of their hearts or because of their passionate belief in the candidate or the cause. (Some do, of course, but their commitment could be demonstrated just as fervently by a check for a thousand dollars as it is by donating what for many Americans would be a sizeable bank account.) At the same time the innocent explanation of a situation involving money and politics that also has “the appearance of corruption” demands embracing the idea that candidates, particularly when they are recipients of really, really big checks and personal favors from donors, are totally immune to the concept of quid pro quo. There are many honest politicians, but we don’t make laws – nor did we once limit campaign contributions – because of the honest people.
Political corruption has existed since Caesar and human nature being what it is there will always be some fast buck artist angling for some favor from some powerful person. But with the adoption of the philosophy, sanctioned by the United States Supreme Court, that anything goes when it comes to money and politics we can expect Justice Kennedy to more-and-more be feasting on his words.
Unlimited, largely unregulated money in politics does give rise to both the appearance and the reality of corruption. The excesses will only grow worse over time in direct proportion to the electorate’s loss of faith in this democracy. Makes you long for a good political sex scandal.