Tag Archives: bribes

How Are Bribes Different Than Lobbying?

Reading stories about this year’s massive New Jersey corruption scandal, I almost have to laugh at the ridiculousness of it. The perp walk into the rented bus, the mayor only three weeks into his term, the cereal box (Apple Jacks!) stuffed with cash – the images are straight out of TV. But it brings up an important question: how do we draw the line between bribes and lobbying? When you hand a mayor $5,000 in cash in hopes of getting a building permit approved, you both go to jail. But when Goldman Sachs hands $3M in campaign contributions to congressmen in hopes of getting regulations eased, it’s totally legal. Does that seem right?

Simon Johnson and John Talbott recently published three articles (which I cannot recommend highly enough) in Salon describing the role of corporate lobbying and deregulation in the financial crisis. In their view, this sort of lobbying IS criminal. And when you look at the facts, it’s hard to disagree with them.

Here are some of those facts. In August 2008, as the financial crisis heated up, Goldman hired a famous lobbyist to come in house and focus on regulation. In January 2009, Goldman was one of several firms receiving bailout money that continued to lobby in Washington DC. And how much did they lobby? The chart below (from opensecrets.org) details their official lobbying over the last decade. ABC News reported that since 1989 Goldman and its executives have given $43 million in campaign contributions.

Goldman Sachs annual lobbying expenditures

Goldman Sachs annual lobbying expenditures

Or let’s look at earmarks. A defense spending bill that passed in the House this week contained more than 1,100 earmarks totaling $2.7 billion in spending. The 18 members of the subcommittee that wrote the bill included 148 earmarks totaling $461 million for entities whose employees have given $822,765 in campaign contributions to those congressmen since 2007. John Murtha, the notoriously corrupt earmark slut from Pennsylvania, chaired the subcommittee and wrote $77 million in earmarks. Defense contractor Argon ST and its employees donated $46,600 to Murtha since 2007, and it got an earmark providing $8 million to improve its torpedo-decoy technology. Special thanks to the Wall Street Journal for all of the info above.

So again, let’s make the comparison: a building inspector in New Jersey takes $30,000 to make sure a real estate developer’s projects move forward, and he goes to jail. A congressman takes $46,000 make sure a company gets an $8 million contract and it’s perfectly legal. And we wonder why the federal government is so screwed up.

Modern Corruption: Deny Until the Cell Door Closes

Kwame Kilpatrick, the mayor of Detroit, is caught up in a maelstrom of legal troubles. Accused of firing several police officers because they wouldn’t help cover up his affair with a one of his employees, he denied the affair until text messages revealed his deceit. He has been charged by the Wayne County prosecutor with several felonies, but he refuses to step down. He was just jailed for violating the terms of his bond, and today is being charged with two felony counts of assaulting a police officer. Still he denies all wrongdoing and refuses to resign. It’s hard to imagine that the city is being well run while its mayor is in and out of jail, but Kilpatrick is clearly more interested in his name than in the city he was elected to lead. Does Mayor Kilpatrick have no sense of decency?

But really, Kilpatrick is just an example of a growing trend among corrupt politicians: pretend it isn’t happening, totally reject all claims, and continue your denials until the day you’re in prison.

Senator Larry Craig, so amusingly charged with soliciting gay sex in an airport bathroom, has categorically denied that was his intent, and his famous “wide stance” excuse became the butt (I couldn’t resist) of much humor on the late night shows.

The FBI found $90,000 in marked bills in the refrigerator of Congressman William Jefferson, but he denies all wrongdoing and refuses to resign. Senator Ted Stevens was just indicted for failing to disclose oil company gifts. He claims complete innocence and is planning his reelection campaign. Congressman John Doolittle (what a great name for a modern congressman) was implicated in the Jack Abramoff scandal and admits paying his wife a 15% commission on all campaign contributions, but he denies any mendacity and refused to resign, choosing instead to retire at the end of his term.

Gavin Newsom, the mayor here in San Francisco, had an affair with his best friend’s wife, at a time when both the friend and the wife were on Gavin’s payroll. Mayor Newsom at least admitted the affair, but did so using the popular new excuse of addiction, and immediately went into treatment. There was no talk of him resigning, and in fact Mayor Newsom is gearing up a run for Governor.

The common theme in all these examples is the refusal to resign for the good of the office and its constituency. These politicians declined to admit or take responsibility for their actions and the impact those actions could have. They were all elected to serve, but ultimately they put their own need (to claim innocence) above the need (for effective representation) of the people who elected them. Whatever happened to admitting wrongdoing? It’s not like these guys are going to get away with it; if the accusations are true, they will be convicted and go to jail. But honestly, I don’t care if they keep denying – just get out of office so that somebody effective can come in and serve the public.

Implications? These politicians are really part of a broader evasion of responsibility, which I will have to write about later. But for now, the main beneficiaries of this trend are media companies. If Mayor Kilpatrick and Senator Craig would do the right thing and resign, then media companies (and blogs!) wouldn’t be able to milk the stories for weeks on end.