Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Audacity of Corruption

The arrest this morning of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich (D) on federal charges of corruption revealed a scandal so sweeping it surely must establish a new low-water mark in the recent history of American political corruption. It unmasked a politician so drunk with his own power that he ran amok in unbelievably arrogant attempts to enrich himself and his wife while desperately trying to crush anyone who got in his way. US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who came to national prominence leading the investigation into the Bush Administration's outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, is in charge of the Blagojevich probe. In a late morning news conference. Fitzgerald said that Blagojevich's actions constituted "a political corruption crime spree". That's putting it mildly.

The federal allegations against Blagojevich fall roughly into three categories:

1. The so-called 'pay to play' scheme in which the Illinois Governor is accused of demanding personal and/or political monetary kick-backs in exchange for awarding state contracts or granting state funds. As appalling as these charges are, they are pretty much the garden variety of political corruption. There is nothing particularly new in this, but it is loathsome nevertheless. In just the past few weeks two long-serving members of Congress lost their re-election bids because of similar corrupt behavior: Alaska Senator Ted Stevens (R) and Louisiana Representative William Jefferson (D). Some fine group of public servants that.

2. Blagojevich is accused of attempting to get at least one political writer for The Chicago Tribune fired in exchange for state backing of renovations at Chicago's Wrigley field, a facility owned by The Tribune's parent company. It seems the journalist(s) had written numerous articles and op-ed pieces highly critical of the Governor. Such overt attempts at muzzling members of the Fourth Estate are very rare in American politics, but are all too common in other countries. For example, Russia's Vladimir Putin would undoubtedly recognize a soul-mate in Mr. Blagojevich. Beyond disgusting, this alleged action earns Blagojevich a very special place in the Political Corruption Hall of Infamy. He will have to fight for a seat with the ghosts of despicable foreign dictators like Haiti's 'Papa Doc' Duvalier and Chile's Augusto Pinochet. Fair enough.

3. If you thought Blagojevich couldn't sink any lower, think again. The Federal criminal complaint asserts that Blagojevich was trying to sell the US Senate seat just vacated by President-elect Barack Obama to the highest bidder. Although not totally unheard of in American politics, the brazenness of the Illinois Governor's efforts to get cash from such a high-level, high-profile appointment is breathtaking and virtually unprecedented. You'd have to look at the behavior of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe or Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko to find anything comparable in today's world. Great role models those.

Although we must be careful to preserve the very important legal presumption of innocence, it is clear that Blagojevich must go... and go now. If he refuses to resign, then the Illinois legislature should remove him from office immediately. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) has suggested that the vacant Illinois Senate seat should be filled by a special election, not by appointment. That sounds like a very good idea. Maybe all the states should adopt that plan for filling Senate and House vacancies.

Fortunately, there is no indication whatsoever that President-elect Obama or anyone on his staff played any role in Blagojevich's nauseating behavior. That's a very good thing indeed. Nevertheless, with an eye to the important notion of the presumption of innocence, Obama must distance himself from Blagojevich in no uncertain terms. The President-elect should throw the Governor under the bus - and then back that bus over him repeatedly. 

As he gets ready to assume the highest office in the land, President-elect Obama must make it crystal clear that this sort of behavior by a public official is utterly unacceptable. No minced words, no nuanced phrases. 

No comments: