Just one day before his arrest on corruption and bribery charges, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich confidently remarked at a press conference that “if anybody wants to tape my conversations, go right ahead, feel free to do it.” Federal authorities had already taken Blagojevich up on his offer, and what they uncovered caused double-takes around the country—his alleged scheme to sell Obama’s vacated Senate seat to the highest bidder was so ignominious and brazen that, according to federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, it “would make Lincoln roll over in his grave.”
The colorful criminal complaint details exactly how Blagojevich leveraged his Senate appointment for political and financial gain. But it also reveals a quid pro quo culture in which Blagojevich skirted campaign finance and ethics laws by exchanging government contracts and jobs for large campaign contributions. “I’m going to do $8 million for [the Children’s Memorial Hospital]. I want to get [Hospital Executive 1] for [$50,000],” Blagojevich said.
While some may dismiss Blagojevich as something of an unhinged bad apple who stepped into office with criminal proclivities, Blagojevich’s arrest is but the latest in a string of wanton ethics transgressions in recent months by state and federal officials. Indeed, congressional Republicans have latched onto the violations in an effort “to turn the tables” on Democrats who ran on a good-government theme to recapture Congress in 2006, and rightly emphasize that “the majority party should be held to its pledge to clean up Washington.”
They point to outgoing Representative William Jefferson, Democrat of Louisiana, who was recently upset by Republican challenger Anh Cao in an overwhelmingly Democratic district. Jefferson pleaded not guilty to 16 counts of corruption last year, including bribery, racketeering, fraud, and money laundering, after he was famously found by FBI agents with $90,000 of cash in his freezer. His long-awaited trial will begin sometime next year.
Republicans are also calling on Representative Charles Rangel, Democrat of New York, to step aside from his chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee while he remains under an ethics investigation. Rangel faces a host of allegations, including illegally accepting several rent-stabilized apartments in Manhattan, soliciting donations for the City College of New York with congressional stationery, and failing to report rental income from a property in the Dominican Republic. Just last week, the House Ethics Committee voted to look deeper into Rangel’s role in preserving a tax loophole for an oil drilling company that donated $1 million to the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York.
Nor have Republicans emerged from the recent wave of corruption scandals unscathed. In October, Ted Stevens, the long-serving Republican Senator from Alaska, was convicted on seven felony counts in connection with failing to report $250,000 in gifts and services from wealthy acquaintances, most memorably an expensive massage chair. Sen. Stevens narrowly lost his reelection bid to challenger Mark Begich and now awaits sentencing. (An earlier post reflecting on Stevens’ ethical challenges may be found here.)
In 2006, Representative Randy “Duke” Cunningham was sentenced to over eight years in prison after pleading guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes. Cunningham was also ordered to pay $1.8 million in restitution and forfeit $1.85 million in valuables. And on Monday, Mitchell Wade, the contractor who bribed Cunningham to the tune of $1 million in exchange for millions of dollars in government contracts, was sentenced to 30 months. Just leaving federal prison after a 17-month stint for corruption is former Ohio congressman Bob Ney, who pleaded guilty in 2006 to performing legislative favors for disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
And who can forget about the wide-ranging ethics scandal involving current and former employees of the Minerals Management Service at the Department of the Interior? Reports published by the department’s inspector general in September revealed “[a] culture of ethical failure” in which employees accepted graft from energy companies, regularly consumed alcohol at industry functions, and engaged in sexual misconduct.
As these scandals illustrate, some politicians can be far too quick to forget their duty to the public. It’s time for elected officials in Congress and elsewhere to renew their commitment to meaningful ethics and campaign finance reforms.
A serious dialogue about public financing at the federal level would tackle the culture of corruption head-on. Congress should actively consider a new presidential campaign public financing model in which overall spending limits are substantially increased and the first $200 of each donation is matched 4 to 1, moving small donors to the center of the stage. And when that is accomplished, public financing for Congress should be the next item considered. Halting the unseemly flow of our public officials from office into jail cells is a top priority.