June 26, 2010 in Opinion

Ruling invites corruption law

The Spokesman-Review
 

It’s not every day that President Barack Obama and the Congress are handed an easy campaign issue by the Supreme Court on the touchy subject of political corruption.

And who isn’t against political corruption?

On Thursday the Supreme Court gutted a key tool used by federal prosecutors to fight white-collar political corruption. It’s known as the “honest services” clause. It deals with the tangible right of Americans to expect honest service from their elected officials.

Even in Illinois.

The court decided that the law was too vague. And since it was also used to convict business crooks like Enron CEO Jeffery Skilling and Chicago media baron Conrad Black, their lawyers are overjoyed.

But the ruling will have its biggest impact on political prosecution cases, because the justices limited theft of honest services to direct bribery and extortion.

Such thinking is simplistic. Big-time political corruption isn’t about greasy envelopes stuffed with cash, passed in some alley behind a tavern.

Rather, high-level corruption is circular, buffered and layered. Elected Official A helps Donor B to compensate Contractor D, who takes care of Regulator C as A’s nephews get rich.

“There is no question that the court has just raised the bar for prosecutors in public corruption and corporate malfeasance cases,” said former Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Collins, now in private practice.

Collins should know. He put former Republican Illinois Gov. George Ryan behind bars. Collins also prosecuted Robert Sorich, the patronage chief for Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

Sorich ran a massive and illegal hiring scheme that allowed Daley to build vast armies of political workers to control elections in Chicago and Cook County. Those armies sent Rahm Emanuel to Congress from the 5th Congressional District.

And now Sorich’s lawyers will no doubt use Thursday’s ruling in his favor.

Once again the justices left it up to Congress to write a new law expressly stating what’s honest and what’s crooked in our politics. Why not consider this a wonderful teaching moment?

What an amazing opportunity for Obama and the Congress – the Democrats and the Republicans – to begin debating honesty in government. I’m sure they’ll call a committee and put it all on C-SPAN.

But if all we hear from our president is silence, I guess we’ve got to wonder:

When Obama and all his chattering media suckups insisted that the guy from Chicago was truly a different kind of politician who would “transcend the broken politics of the past,” did they really mean it?

And what about the Republicans? When they constantly harp about Chicago-style corruption, do they mean that the investigators should stay off their home turf and concentrate only on Chicago?

After the Supreme Court’s opinion was released Thursday, you could almost hear the champagne corks popping behind locked doors in the offices of every crooked politician along The Chicago Way.

And along its minor roads, such as the Boston Way, the New Jersey Way, the Sacramento Way, you name it, it’s all the same, but practiced best by the guys from Chicago, who combine public service with family fortunes. And since they write the laws, it’s all legal.

Happy days are here again. Right, boys?

As if to celebrate, Sorich’s old boss, Mayor Daley, announced this week that City Hall would sign private agreements with management companies and let them do the hiring in city government. Reporters who should know better said it was reform.

Yet private management contracts aren’t subject to the same Freedom of Information scrutiny as is government. Private companies can hire whom they want, without much explanation. The only explaining they have to do is explain to the mayor.

Perhaps they’ll hire Sorich to review city job applications, as he did in the old days.

“Of course I’m disappointed; it’s extremely disappointing” said David Hoffman, a former federal prosecutor and the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate who did not loan money to mobsters.

Hoffman now teaches on corruption and politics at the University of Chicago.

“Now, in cases where there’s no clear quid pro quo, you’ll find prosecutors hesitating,” Hoffman said. “And that’s a shame.”

He and Collins noted that the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals had upheld the Sorich conviction.

That panel of judges ruled that if a public official violates his or her fiduciary duty to the public and becomes involved in fraud for private gain for themselves or for some other party, the money doesn’t have to go into the official’s pocket to be ruled a crime.

So the president and Congress could use that 7th Circuit opinion and make a new, tough corruption law within a week. When they say they’re the change we’ve been waiting for, they meant it, right?

“When corruption occurs, absolutely something is stolen from the people,” said Hoffman. “Something tangible. The right to honest government is more valuable to us than money.”

And when corruption becomes institutionalized, as it has been in Illinois, the people become exhausted. They see how the political bosses reward their servants, they hear whose children get clouted into the public universities. That’s when they’re tempted to do something shameful:

Fall to their knees before the political lords.

And that’s what’s truly corrosive.

Political corruption isn’t only about the theft of honest government. It’s what’s stolen after that. Our dignity.

Surely the president and the Congress – both Republicans and Democrats – understand this. And surely they’ll do something about it before the midterm elections in November.

I mean, who isn’t against political corruption?

John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His e-mail address is jskass@tribune.com.


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