Tuesday, March 17, 2009

DR: Commentary on the Culture of Corruption

From our friends at Democracy Rising:

Commentary on the Culture of Corruption
by Tim Potts

This week began with a bang. In arguably the most corrupt state government in America, federal prosecutors convicted former state Sen. Vince Fumo, D-Phila., of 137 counts of public corruption involving $3.5 million. Then there was the release of emails that implicate House Democratic Whip Bill DeWeese, D-Greene, in the ongoing Bonus Scandal.

Earlier in this already early year:
  • Federal prosecutors obtained guilty pleas from two Luzerne County judges for taking $2.6 million in kickbacks from privately operated juvenile jails. The judges were bounty hunters trading kids for cash.

  • Federal prosecutors sentenced a former Superior Court Judge Michael Joyce for bilking two insurance companies out of $440,000. He claimed fictitious injuries from a slow-speed car accident.
  • It is part of the culture of corruption that three of the four outrages recited above resulted from federal prosecutions, not from the efforts of the state's attorney general or the governor or PA's Supreme Court. In fact, were it not for DeWeese's stunningly stupid letter in 2006 telling bonus recipients not to tell anyone about the bonuses, it's likely that no one would have been prosecuted for the Bonus Scandal.

    Crossing the line that divides the good from the bad is particularly a problem of the legislature. In the legislature, by its very nature, nearly everything is political. Nearly everything has implications for ideologies and allegiances, whether to political parties or to the variety of interests that support and oppose every issue. Each of the thousands of votes a lawmaker casts has some political aspect to it.

    So it's easy to lose the distinction between politicking on the taxpayer's dime, which is legal and inevitable, and campaigning on the taxpayer's dime, which is illegal and avoidable. You can see it coming when a new lawmaker first declares, "It's all politics. What's the difference?"

    DeWeese's email exchange proves the point. Karen Steiner, a House Democratic researcher, got a $1,000 bonus in 2004 and a $15,000 bonus in 2006. After the 2004 bonus, she emailed DeWeese, "I can't thank you enough for the bonus for campaigning. I am speechless as most of us are." To which DeWeese replied, "UR welcome."

    DeWeese continues to deny knowledge of the illegal bonus scheme, but that does not explain why Steiner thought that her bonus was for campaigning or why she thought DeWeese was the leader to thank. If, as DeWeese contends, former Democratic Whip Mike Veon, D-Beaver, was the Darth Vader of illegal campaigning, why didn't Steiner know it and thank Veon?

    Nor does it excuse DeWeese's failure to reply, "That bonus was for your work for the legislature, not for campaigning." Except, of course, that it was for campaigning, and everyone knew it.

    This conspiracy of silence is a significant part of the culture of corruption in the capitol. It takes many forms, and it explains a lot.

    There are at least 150 lawmakers who know how the slots gambling law of 2004 really happened; at least 150 lawmakers know how the Pay Raise of 2005 really happened; at least 150 lawmakers know how every awful thing has happened in recent years. None of them has found it worthwhile to inform the citizens they serve.

    Even those who escape the temptation to campaign with tax dollars, and there are a few, know that everyone else does it. But they remain silent because of the unwritten rule in the capitol: "When you do something good, do it quietly so that you don't make other lawmakers look bad." In the capitol, they're pro-choice on corruption.

    When the Senate passed more than a dozen improvements to public integrity last session, they died in the House partly to prevent their actual enactment but also partly because House leaders resented the Senate for making the House look bad. As if the House needs the Senate to do that.

    In the capitol, acts of theft like the pay raise are celebrated and rewarded while acts of integrity are denigrated and punished. After the pay raise vote, then Minority Leader DeWeese demoted 16 committee chairs and subcommittee chairs who had the integrity, not to mention the common sense, to vote against the pay raise.

    Fumo-gate should fumigate the capitol. The Bonus Scandal should give citizens a bonus of integrity that will make PA a destination for businesses and people, not a place to flee to escape the high costs of corruption.

    We need clear, tough laws, not fuzzy, puny rules. We need vigorous enforcement, not a wink and a nod.

    As Democracy Rising PA has said since 2004, PA citizens deserve the highest standards of public integrity in America. Obviously, the current crop of lawmakers is determined not to do that for us.

    The question now for citizens and media is whether we are more determined to change the culture of corruption than lawmakers are to keep it.

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    Democracy Rising
    Thanks Tim!

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