Being legal doesn’t make it right

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By Jim Flynn

George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are revered as presidents whose character was stronger than the temptations of public power. Neither man used his presidency for personal gain.

The same cannot be said for subsequent presidents, and certainly not for many of today’s politicians. Corruption in politics is as common as broken promises.

Corruption generally includes graft, bribery, extortion and other forms of crookery. More common are the subtle forms of corruption – abuse of public power for personal gain, such as cronyism, nepotism, trading favors, giving and receiving gifts and goodies.

Corruption leads to successful criminal prosecution only occasionally. Most corruption is political gamesmanship, playing the game deviously right out to the edge of the rules and beyond.

Lately we’ve had the spectacle of hearing former Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojavich trolling for bidders who might be interested in the vacated Senate seat of President Obama. Whether peddling a political appointment in Illinois is a criminal act has yet to be determined.

On the other hand, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer gave up his job because his hypocritical romps with pricey prostitutes became public. Spitzer’s peccadilloes had nothing to do with his work, and were paid for out of his own deep pocket. Immorality isn’t abuse of power. It’s hormonal stupidity.

Other recent hormonal scandals have included wide-stance Senator Larry Craig of Utah, caught with his pants down in a public toilet; righteous family values Senator David Vitter of Louisiana whose lust for working ladies didn’t hinder his re-election; and former presidential candidate John Edwards whose much trumpeted commitment to his wife and family didn’t preclude a lengthy liaison with a campaign worker.

Some hormonal scandals are corrupt. Former New Jersey Governor James McGreevey appointed his gay lover and chauffer to the post of state Homeland Security Advisor. In addition to being a non-citizen with no security clearance, McGreevey’s driver-lover-advisor listed his work experience as sailor and poet.

Two of the most egregious corruption exhibitions were by Congressman William Jefferson of Louisiana and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas. Jefferson is accused of selling influence for personal gain not only domestically but overseas as well, sort of a one-man foreign aid department.

Mr. DeLay’s K-Street Project was designed to trade lobbyist influence in Congress for employment opportunities and other goodies for loyal politicians, their aides, and relatives.

Here in Florida we had our own show of public good deeds with a coincidental reward. In 2008, recently resigned House Speaker Ray Sansom guided $25 million of construction money to Northwest Florida State College, which had requested only $1 million. Out of gratitude the college offered Mr. Sansom an unadvertised $110,000 vice-presidency, which he accepted on the day he was sworn into the speakership, both of which he later relinquished.

Corruption in America is as old as Plymouth Rock. Trading companies and royal governors practiced conflict of interest long before the Revolution and the Constitution. One of the goals of our nation’s founders was a form of government which would be less corruptible.

As the nation grew, political machines flourished. They were often corrupt with the knowledge and consent of the governed – the Crump machine in Tennessee, Curley in Massachusetts, Long in Louisiana, Pendergast in Kansas City, Daley in Chicago, and Tammany Hall in New York City.

Since 1880, Congress has passed at least a dozen anti-corruption acts. Government vows to reform itself after every major scandal, but there are always undiscovered foxes in the hen house.

Recently we’ve observed experienced and savvy nominees for cabinet positions in the Obama administration struggling to pass off tax delinquencies and bad judgments as trivial oversights. Their explanations didn’t pass the smell test with voters, and the president had to jettison some otherwise good nominees.

The unspoken suspicion among voters is that the clubby atmosphere in Washington is still fertile ground for corruption. The hope of Americans is that Mr. Obama was serious when he promised a new culture and transparency. We’ll be watching the chicken coop.

Jim Flynn was formerly a corporate counsel, served in military intelligence during the Korean War, and once aspired to be a newspaper columnist.