Thanks to the slashing, theatrical tactics of Michael Avenatti, we spent much of last week learning how corporate America bribes public officials. It was revealed that AT&T and Novartis paid Trump lawyer Michael Cohen for “insights” into the Trump administration. Cohen’s take from a variety of companies ran into the seven figures.
Our government is for sale, but don’t blame Donald Trump. His clumsy cast of cartoon Mafiosi have merely taken the finesse out of the game, placing the oily guts of the machine out in the daylight.
Pay for play politics is not new. It is not a product of Citizens United or McDonnell. Bribery is deeply engrained in our values and protected in law. Some states, like Texas, have no enforceable bribery laws. Federal statutes create such a high standard, with so many exceptions, that even the rare, successful prosecution is usually overturned on appeal.
Spiro Agnew spent his career shaking down government contractors for cash. He continued the practice during his time as Nixon’s Vice President. When the payments were revealed he was forced to resign, but his only penalty was to pay back-taxes on a small portion of the income. Money for that payment came from Frank Sinatra.
The only way to go to jail for bribery is to be sloppy, unpopular, or of course – black. Louisiana Congressman, William Jefferson, carries the distinction of serving the longest sentence in our history for bribery. His conviction carried an enhancement for criming while black, resulting in a whopping 13-year sentence. Jefferson served five years before almost all of the charges against him were overturned. Coincidently, the two longest sentences ever handed down for bribery just happen to have been laid on black elected officials, Jefferson and Philadelphia’s Chaka Fattah. Strange.
Former Texas Governor and current Energy Secretary, Rick Perry has spent his entire adult life in poorly paid public service. Naturally, he’s a millionaire. Perry plays a starring role in one of our country’s most remarkable bribery incidents, and no, it’s not the one that earned him an indictment.
Back in the 90’s, Texas homebuilding tycoon, Bob Perry (no relation), was concerned about the growth of municipal housing codes and his losses from lawsuits over shoddy construction. So he bought a new state agency that would pre-empt municipal codes and block homeowner lawsuits. He even got his lawyer appointed to the agency board in 2003. The effort is estimated to have cost him around $10 million which he spread liberally around both parties in the legislature and the Governor’s office. Under public protest, the agency was disbanded a few years later, but there were no investigations or prosecutions.
Sweet old Bob Dole was the king of the dole. Like Perry, public service made Dole a millionaire. He was owned by the tobacco industry, but they lent him out for other projects. His ’88 campaign earned a then-record fine for its blatant irregularities. A scandal over payments by the Gulf Oil Company back in the 70’s was one his strangest scams in a career filled with, let’s just say, odd and irregular payments.
Your Congressman does not represent you. If your Congressman imagines that she represents you, she will quickly cease to be your Congressman. This is as true of the finest people we send to Washington as it is of the worst. The noblest, most principled, and most effective of our representatives are the ones who ride a knife edge, finding small ways around the legislative margins to protect your interests while pacifying the people who underwrite the system and fund their campaigns.
The impact of institutionalized bribery is perhaps most apparent in the details of the Affordable Care Act. Why didn’t the ACA include a public option? Why isn’t the program universal? Why is Medicare blocked by law from using its remarkable negotiating leverage to drive down prices for prescription drugs? Lots of well-intentioned elected officials went to Washington in 2008 and discovered the stark limits of their power. Corporations and wealthy individuals spent just enough money on bribes to divert just enough public political will to protect their most vital interests at a critical moment.
Of course, buying political outcomes is more complicated than it sounds. Your legislature is a marketplace with many competing buyers. Voters complicate this picture. Money spent on bribes is leverage against public will. The deeper and more focused the public interest, the more it costs to move unpopular policies into law. An organized and engaged public can easily drive the price of corruption too high even for billionaires. Nothing in our system is as powerful as motivated voters. Don’t worry, the wealthy have ways to keep voters disorganized and confused.
Money spent to buy political outcomes isn’t just spent on bribes. Elected officials receiving the money need air cover. Cash flows into disinformation campaigns that blunt public will. The racist website, Brietbart is a project of the Mercer family. But for the Mercers, you never would have heard of Steve Bannon. If you’ve heard of Ben Shapiro or the fake news site Daily Wire, you can thank the freaky Texas billionaires, the Wilks Brothers.
Daily Signal is underwritten by the Heritage Foundation, which is a project of several billionaires including the Scaifes and the Kochs. Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller was backed by born-again millionaire Foster Friess. Founders of The Federalist have managed to keep their funding sources secret. The “grassroots” conservative media site, RedState, is a project of the Salem Media Group, a Christian media behemoth that trades on NASDAQ. And of course, the mother of all fake news projects, Fox News, was built by Nixon aide Roger Ailes and funded by Rupert Murdoch.
Beyond just news, the Koch brothers have bought an entire complex of phony think tanks. They’ve also bought university programs and professors. They practically own George Mason University outright. If information is power, disinformation is Kryptonite.
Why do hacks like Ben Shapiro and Tomi Lahren appear all over your drunk uncle’s Facebook feed while few people have heard of David Brin, Doug Mataconis or Doug Muder? If your writing on politics and economics is insightful, you might build a modest following. If your writing helps wealthy people cover their bribery, you’ve stumbled onto a golden business model.
Some have fought this monster. Sally Yates built a career battling corrupt public officials and it nearly cost her a job at the Justice Department. Long before anyone could imagine a Trump administration, Congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis tried to scuttle Yates’ 2009 appointment as a federal prosecutor. Yates had ruined the career of a corrupt Atlanta mayor friendly to Lewis. The pay-for-play monster has no concern for no party labels.
Obama Administration officials launched a serious campaign against corruption. Their efforts contributed to prosecutions against Sheldon Silver and Seth Williams. As a result, Yates and Preet Bharara have been fired. Others will likely follow. The Silver prosecution is already unraveling. The Obama Era effort to constrain bribery is deader than Donald Trump’s soul.
In theory, voters could put a stop to pay for play politics anytime we want. Citizens United does nothing to stop state or federal government from adopting aggressive disclosure laws for political donations. We could pass real, enforceable bribery laws. We could strip the tax deduction for dark money political donations. We could implement financial disclosure rules for elected and appointed officials.
We haven’t stopped this monster because the public doesn’t care. Money-driven politics is so engrained our political culture that it doesn’t inspire much concern. Bribery is an American tradition, one we will almost certainly pass on to the next generation.