Dr. Terry Golway, Director of the Kean University Center for History, Politics, & Policy penned the following Opinion Piece for Reuters News Agency on Friday, January 30th.
(It can be read in it's original form at http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2015/01/29/when-it-comes-to-corrup...)
He was hardly a household name, and he owed his authority to the votes of a few thousand people on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. But for more than two decades, Sheldon Silver was one of the most powerful people in New York politics. He held up budgets, cut deals, blocked projects he didn’t like and doled out public dollars with little accountability. Governors came and went, but Silver seemingly was speaker of the New York State Assembly for life — beyond the reach of good-government critics, investigative journalists and ethics watchdogs. Until last week.
On Jan. 22, Silver was arrested, handcuffed, fingerprinted and brought before a judge, accused of an array of corruption charges. (Silver did not have to enter a plea, but he has denied the accusations.)
Photographs of him being led away from a courtroom showed not an imperious power-broker, but a stooped, 70-year-old man with a road map of worry on his face. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office led the investigation, announced Silver’s indictment with a blistering statement accusing him of amassing “a tremendous personal fortune through the abuse of [his] political power.”
Silver’s alleged crimes are hardly unique to New York City, Albany or, indeed, the United States. Political systems and cultures may vary widely from nation to nation, continent to continent, but corruption is universal. From Bejing to Kabul, Moscow to Mexico City, beleaguered citizens surely would recognize Silver, or former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, or former New York Representative Michael Grimm as variations on the familiar lament that power corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
But here’s the difference between the United States and many truly lawless nations that happen to be strategically important to Washington at the moment: Corrupt U.S. politicians invariably get caught, sometimes because they overreach, sometimes because an ambitious prosecutor or an investigative reporter comes along to expose the scam.
Nobody in New York was more powerful that William Tweed, the infamous boss of the Tammany Hall political machine, in the years following the Civil War. He had allies in all the right places, particularly the comptroller’s office, where the city’s books were cooked until they were overdone. But when a political enemy brought evidence of Tweed’s corruption to the New York Times in 1871, the powerful boss found himself alone and exposed. Tweed was arrested, convicted and sent to prison, where he died a broken man in 1878 at age 55.
Many a dubious private fortune was made during the Gilded Age; robber barons like Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie reaped vast riches. But Tweed, the face of public corruption, was the one notorious figure from the era to serve time in prison.
Like Tweed, Spiro T. Agnew no doubt figured he had friends in all the right places. Heck, he was vice president of the United States! But in 1973, just months after he and President Richard M. Nixon were resoundingly reelected, a federal prosecutor accused Agnew of accepting bribes while he served as county executive of Baltimore, governor of Maryland and even as vice president.
Agnew pleaded no contest and resigned in disgrace. Agnew remains probably the highest U.S. elected official driven out of office because of corruption. Nixon, who resigned in disgrace a year later, was brought down more for abuse of power than graft and bribery.
Thanks to courageous journalists and incorruptible prosecutors, the list of U.S. grafters and bribe-takers who were caught and convicted is long and storied.
But that’s the point. Exposure and punishment are not mere abstractions — as Tweed, Agnew and, potentially, Silver discovered.
In announcing the charges against Silver, Bharara delivered a stinging metaphorical indictment of Albany’s notoriously corrupt culture, condemning what he called a “lack of transparency, lack of accountability and lack of principle.” As he likely knew, his critique of Albany could be easily applied to the other 49 state capitals in the United States.
Jaded political observers regularly attempt to determine which state has the most insidious political culture. Illinois? Always a solid choice after two consecutive governors, Republican George Ryan and Democrat Rod Blagojevich, were sent to prison in the early 21st century. Louisiana? It is known for its singularly relaxed approach to ethics enforcement.
New Jersey? Another favorite. Politicians there can be particularly creative — as three mayors proved several years ago when they became enmeshed in a plot that included, believe it not, the sale of kidneys. Thirty years ago, several New Jersey politicians and a handful from other states were caught accepting cash from an FBI agent posing as an Arab sheik with immigration issues. Abscam was a scandal for the ages.
When the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity examined ethics enforcement and public accountability in all 50 states, only two rated a grade of B or better. Seven were given an F.
Corruption, from the venal to the vast, is so much a part of the American political landscape that comparisons occasionally are made to less developed nations where payoffs and graft are an accepted way of doing business. The huge enterprise that Silver is accused of running, one that prosecutors say netted him nearly $4 million in bribes disguised as legal fees, sounds like something many Americans would associate with, say, Afghanistan, Iraq or Pakistan — places where, not coincidentally, hundreds of billions of dollars have been funneled to power brokers, high and low, over the past 15 years.
Thanks in large measure to the global war on Islamic extremism, the United States finds itself enmeshed in political cultures where payoffs and tribute are more likely to bring about favorable results than the ballot box or energetic debate.
At first glance, it might seem to be a world in which U.S. figures are quite comfortable. After all, it was in Illinois, not Helmand province, where a local governor (Blagojevich) sought to auction off a vacant Senate seat after its holder won election to the nation’s highest office.
But that cynical conclusion ignores a rather important point: In the end, Blagojevich found himself hauled into court and subjected to the full force of the criminal justice system. McDonnell was found guilty of corruption and was sentenced to two years in prison, though he is planning to appeal the verdict. Grimm pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.
Silver’s legal problems have just begun, but already he has been forced to resign the job that made him so powerful — that of speaker of the New York Assembly.
It doesn’t exactly work that way in many of the countries the United States is seeking to influence. In Afghanistan, for example, half its beleaguered citizens were forced to pay bribes to local political potentates in order to receive basic public services, according to a United Nations study.
In strategically vital Uzbekistan, north of Afghanistan, the family of President Islam Karimov is thought to control not just the nation’s government but its economy as well. The country has received more than a billion dollars in aid from Washington over the past quarter century. Much of the money may have wound up in the ruling family’s pockets.
In those countries and many others that have captured Washington’s attention in the 21st century, there are few Preet Bahararas looking out for the public’s interests and hauling crooked politicians into courtrooms.
China is making a public show of fighting corruption that has risen along with the country’s gross domestic product, but critics charge that the government is using criminal investigations to punish critics and to consolidate President Xi Jinping’s power.
The United States may never achieve Scandinavian-style high marks for the purity of its civic affairs. The temptations are too great because the money is enormous, as the Silver case seems to show.
But he is now deposed as speaker and is contemplating life behind bars. It doesn’t work that way elsewhere.
Shane Derris is the Assistant Director of the Kean University Center for History, Politics and Policy.