If you want to buy a politician in America, you’re in luck. At all levels of authority, from cities and counties to the 50 state capitals and Washington, D.C., there are politicians willing to accept assistance in their re-election efforts, luxury gifts, and good old-fashioned cash money in exchange for assisting the rich and powerful.
If you want to do business at the city level, it’s not hard to get a mayor to help ease the transition for you and your company. The current charges against Patrick Cannon (D), the mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, are for accepting more than $48,000 in cash and airline tickets, plus the use of a hotel room and luxury apartment, in exchange for “access to city officials responsible for planning, zoning and permitting.” Cannon has been on the job for less than six months. Vincent Gray (D) has been the mayor of Washington, D.C., for three years, and if federal prosecutors are right, he’s done a little better for himself. In addition to a luxury SUV and driver, cash payments to close relatives, and $40,000 in house renovations for a friend, he also allegedly accepted more than $400,000 in illegal campaign contributions from Jeffrey Thompson, a billionaire contractor.
The for-profit prison industry has found easier profits thanks to friendly “tough on crime” judges at the county level. Judge Mark Ciavarella (D) was elected to two consecutive 10-year terms as a judge in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, campaigning on a platform of punishing “people who break the law.” For each one he sent to the county’s privately run juvenile detention centers, Ciavarella received a “finder’s fee” from Robert Mericle, the real estate developer who built the facilities. Ciavarella and Senior Judge Michael Conahan (D), who was responsible for shutting down the state’s juvenile detention center in 2002 and spending county funds on leasing the private facilities, together accepted $2.15 million from Mericle in exchange for locking up thousands of teenagers over offenses as minor as stealing change from cars and mocking an assistant principal on Myspace. Ciavarella, who lost on appeal to the Third Ciruit Court, is serving a 28-year sentence in federal prison, while Conahan is serving 17 1/2 years on one count of racketeering.
State governments are open for business, too. Four of the last seven governors of famously corrupt Illinois have spent time in prison, leading to a situation where 89 percent of voters say corruption in state government is “typical.” Other states get their share, too. Corruption in New York was bad enough that Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) convened a special public commission to investigate shady practices in politics, one which issued 200 subpoenas and reviewed millions of documents, but yesterday the governor agreed to shut down the commission during budget negotiations with the legislature, the workplace of the very people the commission was supposed to investigate. Rhode Island’s Speaker of the House, Gordon Fox (D), was arrested two weeks ago in connection with a state and federal corruption probe and has since resigned as Speaker and announced his intention not to run for re-election.
The California state Senate has been a prime hot spot for corruption this year. Last week FBI officials arrested California State Senator Leland Yee (D), a strident anti-gun and anti-corruption politician who allegedly has close ties to organized crime. He is charged with accepting bribes from numerous undercover FBI agents, including an offer to secure $2 million in weapons for contributions to his campaign for Secretary of State. In February, Yee’s fellow state senator Ron Calderon (D) was indicted on bribery charges, and in January state Sen. Roderick Wright (D) was convicted on eight counts of voter fraud and perjury.
When you get to the federal level you’re going to run into more obstacles than at lower levels, thanks to Byzantine campaign finance laws, but that doesn’t mean you can’t buy yourself some influence. Getting a Congressman or Senator to bend or break rules as necessary is easy to do, as the report on 17 corrupt members of the House and Senate by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington attests. Picking up a few travel tabs seems to go a long way, as do campaign contributions. Those are restricted by federal law, but representatives like Michael Grimm (R), who appears in that CREW report on corruption, appear to have found a way to trade donations with fellow Republicans in faraway districts, an illegal but hard-to-prove practice that took down former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) in 2010.
If nothing else, you can take advantage of the twisted election laws and funnel your cash through a Super PAC to buy off a federal politician. The 978 registered Super PACs in the U.S. have raised more than $146 million this year already, which can’t be used to fund candidates’ campaigns but can be used to lobby the public directly on behalf of an issue those candidates are tied to. This is a preferred method for billionaires like Sheldon Adelson, who can fund presidential campaigns with the pocket change from their couches. Buying up co-sponsors for anti-gambling legislation that was no priority for anybody before the sugar daddy showed up is easy, since intermediaries can take care of the dirty work. It also allows a kept lawmaker like Lindsey Graham (R) to say with a straight face that he just thinks banning online gambling is “the right thing to do,” despite having no track record of caring about the issue in the past.
Maybe if things get bad enough people will decide they’ve had it with these corrupt politicians. If they do, I expect Congress to follow the example of Romania’s parliament. With 28 members of that body convicted of or under trial for abuse of office, bribery, and conflicts of interest, the members voted last December to decriminalize corruption. What an elegant solution.