Lord Acton had it just right when he said “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But the American Founding Fathers understood this principle perfectly, and it’s why they turned to a tripartite system of government with careful checks and balances. The Republican Party under Newt Gingrich had a field day with the petty corruption of an entrenched Democratic leadership in Washington. And then, in power, they renounced their “Contract With America” by proving that they could easily surpass the Democrats. Epidemic corruption really dates from roughly 2002, as the G.O.P. achieved its long sought after lock-hold on the Congress, the White House and the judiciary. And the simple truth is that corruption among public office holders is not the preserve of one party or the other, but rather something that thrives when the checks-and-balances system fails, and the press turns a blind eye on the problem or becomes itself too cynical (or even, like in Alabama, enmeshed in the corruption). There are several lessons to be learned from the Bush presidency, and this I submit is an important one. We underappreciated the role of checks-and-balances.
In Washington today, corruption is more deeply entrenched than at any point in my lifetime. We see it in a corrupt system of award of public contracts, increasingly through a no-bid process cloaked in secrecy to avert the public’s gaze. We see it in a Justice Department which often seems more bent on committing crimes than averting them. And we see it in Congress, where the fundamental job of self-policing has disintegrated into a political game of tit-for-tat. The New York Times editorializes about this disgusting spectacle today, with some well-chosen words:
Anxiety is palpable in the House as lawmakers try to wriggle out of a vote on whether to create an independent Office of Congressional Ethics. Despite last-minute cries of alarm and resistance from both sides of the aisle, the public is counting on Speaker Nancy Pelosi to stand fast and steer this overdue dose of ethics reform to passage.
The office would have six professionals, appointed by the two party leaders, charged with the task of screening complaints of misbehavior for possible referral to the House ethics committee for fuller inquiry. Opponents from both parties openly worry that partisan rivals would hand over false complaints and that any investigation — including those that don’t result in a referral — could threaten their careers.
Fears of any runaway inquisition can be more than negated by the appointment of blue-ribbon, nonpartisan professionals. Even now, those fears are being exploited by some Republicans. According to National Journal’s Congress Daily, Republican staffers have been threatening to use the office to target a hit list of Democrats this fall. This would be a new low in tooth-and-claw partisanship, and cooler heads had better prevail in the caucus.
The current highly politicized ethics process has brought self-policing to a standstill and has enabled the environment in which the Cunninghams, Jeffersons and Renzis thrive. It is dragging the reputation of the Congress through the sewer. And it urgently needs to be cleaned up. Politicians need to live in fear that their unseemly dealings with be exposed and the sanitizing light of the public attention will be brought upon them. And conversely, the specter of political prosecution – that political figures are held to a higher or lower standard because of the letter after their name – must end. The Justice Department’s highly politicized conduct must stop. It needs to clean up its Public Integrity Section, which has become a public sewer in the last five years. The key is a uniform standard for political corruption, applied fairly all across the country.
The Abramoff case itself presents an interesting example of the sort of gamesmanship that has surrounded political corruption inquiries. In the words of Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, the Abramoff scandal is by most measures the most significant political corruption scandal in the nation’s history. It was pursued, but only so far, and then the matter came to an amazing dead-end: in Alabama. Sam Stein reports:
On the stump, Sen. John McCain often cites his work tackling the excesses of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff as evidence of his sturdy ethical compass. A little-known document, however, shows that McCain may have taken steps to protect his Republican colleagues from the scope of his investigation.
In the 2006 Senate report concerning Abramoff’s activities, which McCain spearheaded, the Arizona Republican conspicuously left out information detailing how Alabama Gov. Bob Riley was targeted by Abramoff’s influence peddling scheme. Riley, a Republican, won election in November 2002, and was reelected in 2006.
In a December 2002 email obtained by the Huffington Post — which McCain and his staff had access to prior to the issuance of his report — Abramoff explains to an aide what he would like to see Riley do in return for the “help” he received from Abramoff’s tribal clients. An official with the Mississippi Choctaws “definitely wants Riley to shut down the Poarch Creek operation,” Abramoff wrote, “including his announcing that anyone caught gambling there can’t qualify for a state contract or something like that.”
The note showed not only the reach of Abramoff, but raised questions about Riley’s victory in what was the closest gubernatorial election in Alabama history.
I have had this email, and several others for some time, and have alluded to them in several of my posts. In fact one of the things that attracted me to the Siegelman case was recognizing an array of names brought out to attack Jill Simpson when she first spoke. They appeared, cited as indubitable authorities in the Birmingham News — and they were many of the names I learned from reading the Abramoff email traffic that was reviewed by John McCain’s committee.
Stein’s concerns that the investigation dead-ended in Alabama without following the trail of millions in Abramoff-related cash are extremely well taken.
But his criticism of Senator McCain is not. I followed McCain’s inquiries into the Indian gambling matters closely and was consulted by his investigators a few times as the case went forward (disclosure: as my readers know, I am and have long been a very strong admirer and supporter of John McCain). The work that the McCain committee did was superlative, and it was essential to breaking open the Abramoff scandal and bringing the victimization of the Native Americans exploited by Abramoff to public light. McCain carried this off in a magnificent way, and his report was probably the best investigative work done in that session of Congress. Of course it didn’t cover everything — it was never intended to.
Also, it was not the responsibility of the McCain committee to do law enforcement work – that rested with the Justice Department and the various U.S. Attorneys offices. And there, the system simply fell down. Moreover, there are a number of details concerning the collapse of the Abramoff investigation in Alabama that are extremely troubling. One goes to the resolution of the Poarch Creek Indians’ effort to secure a casino license—which is the prospect used in what some will see as a shake-down of the Choctaws. The U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama, Leura Canary, was appointed to a licensing commission on this project. Her husband, William Canary, is the state’s leading Republican campaign advisor, and was deeply enmeshed in the 2002 gubernatorial election campaign. These facts make the failure of follow-through and action by federal prosecutors in Alabama extremely alarming. They point to further lapses in duty.
But of course, at that time federal prosecutors in Alabama were far too busy concocting specious charges against the state’s former Democratic governor, Don E. Siegelman, to be bothered with following up on the probe into the biggest corruption scandal in the nation’s history. Particularly since it involved looking into a man who had fueled the state’s Republican campaign coffers. Abramoff was, after all, a member of the “home team.” And Abramoff’s soulmate Michael Scanlon, a former aide to Governor Riley, was even more so. The juxtaposition of the Abramoff and Siegelman matters demonstrates very effectively the serious corruption that has crept into the criminal justice system in Alabama. At length, we can hope that it will be exposed and remedied, but it has been allowed to fester for too many years unnoticed or ignored.
It is a remarkable demonstration of the sort of corruption that flows from absolute power – or the closest proximity to it that America has recently witnessed.