Saturday, November 26, 2005

American corruption: Is Abramoff a tipping point?

American governance was very corrupt towards the end of the 19th century; during the so-called Gilded Age. Taft is one of the few presidents that may have been worse than George Bush. (I think Jackson was also worse, so GWB is only #3 -- he did pass Nixon though.) Things turned around fairly dramatically under Teddy Rosevelt and the trust busters. But these things go in cycles ...

We've been in a bad spot since Reagan; Carter was the last genuinely honest President. (Clinton was infinitely better than Bush, but no bastion of integrity). I used to support the Concord coalition, but about 15 years ago it became apparent that we weren't going to be able to deal with our budget issues honestly until we dealt with the growing corruption in American politics. Tim Penny, a former Minnesota Representative, has spoken well on this topic, as has, of course, John McCain and Russ Feingold. Mostly, however, both Democrats and Republicans have been silent. Corruption is now the only bipartisan consensus.

But ... what about the Abramoff Affair?. If the Plame Affair is really about Cheney and the corruption of power, the Abramoff affair is about plain old bribery and corruption. Nothing new, only more brutal and direct than we're accustomed too. Mysteriously, for some unfathomable reason, Abramoff seems to have crossed some sort of line (emphases mine):
Lawmakers Under Scrutiny in Probe of Lobbyist (Washington Post)

The Justice Department's wide-ranging investigation of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff has entered a highly active phase as prosecutors are beginning to move on evidence pointing to possible corruption in Congress and executive branch agencies, lawyers involved in the case said.

Prosecutors have already told one lawmaker, Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), and his former chief of staff that they are preparing a possible bribery case against them, according to two sources knowledgeable about the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The 35 to 40 investigators and prosecutors on the Abramoff case are focused on at least half a dozen members of Congress, lawyers and others close to the probe said. The investigators are looking at payments made by Abramoff and his colleagues to the wives of some lawmakers and at actions taken by senior Capitol Hill aides, some of whom went to work for Abramoff at the law firm Greenberg Traurig LLP, lawyers and others familiar with the probe said.

Former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R), now facing separate campaign finance charges in his home state of Texas, is one of the members under scrutiny, the sources said. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.) and other members of Congress involved with Indian affairs, one of Abramoff's key areas of interest, are also said to be among them.

Prosecutions and plea deals have become more likely, the lawyers said, now that Abramoff's former partner -- public relations executive Michael Scanlon -- has agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy and to testify about gifts that he and his K Street colleagues showered on lawmakers, allegedly in exchange for official favors.

... Investigators are also gathering information about Abramoff's hiring of several congressional wives, sources said, as well as his referral of clients to Alexander Strategy Group, a lobbying and consulting firm run by former senior aides to DeLay. Financial disclosure forms show that the firm employed DeLay's wife, Christine, from 1998 to 2002.

... The former top procurement official in the Bush administration, David H. Safavian, has already been charged with lying and obstruction of justice in connection with the Abramoff investigation. Safavian, who traveled to Scotland with Ney on a golf outing arranged by Abramoff, is accused of concealing from federal investigators that Abramoff was seeking to do business with the General Services Administration at the time of the golf trip. Safavian was then GSA chief of staff.
Does Abramoff represent a tipping point, or will any reform effort prove premature? I'm betting we won't see any real reform succeed under the Bush administration. Put my money on "no tipping point yet". Even if the US does move down the reform road, Italy is a sobering example of how unpredictable reform can be -- they took a huge step forward in the 90s, but then elected Berlusconi -- a man who makes Abramoff seem chaste.

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