Poster Child: California state Sen. Ron Calderon, one of many state pols facing ethics charges (AP Photo / Damian Dovarganes).
SACRAMENTO – When it comes to ethics, I always figured there are three kinds of people. There are those who, upon seeing a storehouse filled with treasure, would try to steal as much of it as they could grab. Then there are those would take the treasure, but only if the doors were unlocked and they were fairly sure they wouldn’t get caught. And then there are those who wouldn’t take any of it under any circumstances. Those are the honest folks who would close the storehouse door if someone else had left it open.
I’ve recently expanded those categories by two. There also are those who wouldn’t mind getting what’s in the storehouse provided the voters pass a law authorizing agents of the government to take it for them. That includes most of the country’s voters, whether they call themselves “liberals” or “conservatives.” And then there’s a small subset – the people who pass the laws (often accompanied by high-minded speeches) authorizing the theft.
Those last categories conform to the musings of journalist H.L. Mencken, who argued: “Government is a broker in pillage, and every election is a sort of advance auction in stolen goods.” He’s not the only one who noticed the prime goal of the government – any government, in any country – is to redistribute wealth among different groups of constituents.
Yet whenever political scandals emerge, politicians feign outrage in the same way that people are shocked that there are no virgins to be found in the whorehouse. If the whole purpose of government is to rearrange the riches, so to speak, then it’s no surprise that those who are particularly adept at the practice aren’t the best candidates for the monastery.
California’s political class has been captivated by a series of legislative scandals in recent months. Democratic Sen. Rod Wright, an “Inglewood” Democrat, was found guilty on eight felony counts including perjury. In California, state legislators must live in the districts they represent, and a jury found that Wright lived in a much tonier neighborhood. Instead of booting him from the Senate, the leadership won’t even hold a vote on the matter – preferring instead to grant him a paid leave of absence as the senator awaits sentencing.
As political corruption scandals go, that’s a yawner. Several other legislators are vulnerable on the district issue. I’m most perturbed at how outraged the political class is about this supposedly unfair prosecution. Maybe the law is unfair and maybe the prosecution was politically motivated. But I have never heard the Senate’s leaders complain about the many state laws that are unfair and about prosecutors who unevenly prosecute cases against regular Joes.
The tawdrier story involves the Calderon brothers and their Los Angeles-area Democratic political dynasty. “According to (U.S. attorney Andre) Birotte, the Calderons greedily helped support ‘a massive health fraud’ as (Sen.) Ron Calderon pushed to preserve a California spinal surgery law that dramatically benefited hospital owner Michael Drobot, who officials say ‘ripped off’ 100 insurers,” explained an LA Weekly article. Here’s FBI information on the indictment.
Once the FBI raided the senator’s office, his political allies – all of whom knew about his high-living ways – were suddenly shocked to find out about it. They distanced themselves from him immediately, offering denouncements and stripping him of his committee chairmanships. Recently, he, too, was placed on indefinite paid leave, but not expelled from the Senate. Calderon denies any wrongdoing and hasn’t been convicted of anything.
In my U-T San Diego column, I quote Dan Schnur, a former Republican consultant who is running an independent bid for secretary of state on a government-reform agenda: “If Calderon had talked about passing legislation and getting summer jobs for his kids in separate phone calls rather than in the same one, it all would have been perfectly legal.”
My conclusion, from the column: “The difference between being a member in good standing of the California Legislature (or any other one) and being a criminal sometimes comes down to surprisingly narrow distinctions.”
That, as any libertarian theorist will tell you, is the problem in a political system where what is legal for the government (taking and redistributing property) would be illegal if a normal person did this in his private life. Drawing distinctions and determining the difference between, say, a really effective senator and a crook can come down to some hair-splitting.
The East Bay Express reported on another recent Sacramento scandal: “So far, the scandal has centered on high-powered lobbyist Kevin Sloat and his Sacramento firm, Sloat Higgins Jensen Associates. Under California law, it’s illegal for lobbyists to make campaign donations directly to candidates. … But the Sloat scandal showed that lobbyists are easily circumventing this law. Instead of making donations themselves, they hold lavish parties that they call ‘fundraisers,’ and they invite their clients to meet face-to-face with high-ranking politicians. Then, as the lobbyists and their clients press the politicos to give them what they want, the clients hand over $10,000 checks. …”
And in recent weeks, there’s been a travel scandal, with the Sacramento Bee reporting that legislators accepted $550,000 in travel donations from foreign governments as well as corporations and unions that funnel the money through foundations. The state places $440 limits on annual gifts from a single group, but no limits on any travel that can reasonably be construed as educational or related to the legislators’ job. That includes such educational jaunts as golfing trips to Maui and tours of Sweden and Israel.
Last week, Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, who was an ally of Calderon, and two senators who had taken the most travel in 2013, announced at a Capitol press conference a new series of reforms that would promote accountability and cleaner government. The reforms don’t touch the travel. Indeed, Steinberg and Sens. Kevin de Leon and Ricardo Lara said how important the trips were in helping legislators do their jobs. But the package of bills would reduce the $440 limit to $200, ban fund-raisers at lobbyists’ homes and require more frequent gift reporting.
Good-government activists scoffed at these measures as picking the lowest-hanging fruit. Others viewed them as diversionary tactics. No one believes that a few new limits and some tweaks to campaign-finance law will change the way things are done.
Few politicians would steal anything directly, and most might be among the honest folks who wouldn’t touch anything in the treasure-laden storehouse. But they are part of a system where government robs Peter to pay Paul. Almost all of this is entirely legal and few people even question the ethics of it. A lot of the political law-breaking is fairly technical in nature (i.e., Wright).
But 60 percent of the bills that became law in California in 2010 were sponsored and written by special-interest groups. That sounds an awful lot like Mencken’s auction of stolen goods, given that all the money ultimately comes from taxpayers. Clearly, the system is tawdry. And this is where the good-government activists get it wrong. The folks who promote the new rules sometimes are cynical and want to deflect attention from scandal, but often they are well meaning as they propose new campaign limits or plans to turn, say, the secretary of state’s office into a technically nonpartisan position.
The real problem is government is too big, meddlesome and accustomed to taxing one group and giving benefits to another. Why wouldn’t a system such as this lure those who are most adept at this kind of work? Why wouldn’t lobbyists and special-interest groups try to buy protection or seek favors? It only makes sense, so there’s little chance that any of it will change until Americans begin to question some of the more fundamental aspects of the system.
Steven Greenhut is a contributor to Watchdog.org.