The dysfunctional way we view campaign contributions and corruption


I ham-handedly tried to explain why Tom DeLay got off-the-hook yesterday when I stated that his ideology overlapped perfectly with the corrupt actions of former super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. What I meant is that it was impossible to distinguish whether DeLay’s positions, for example, on labor laws for the Marianas Islands, were influenced by the trips and dining he was provided by Abramoff–via money laundered through a nonprofit–or whether that position stemmed from his conservative belief in free markets with little to no regulation. Prosecutors couldn’t figure it out and there was no evidence to go by except for DeLay’s statement that he was simply following his ideological beliefs. The money spent on him held no sway over his ultimate decisions, he argued.

A similar argument can be made for lawmakers who receive campaign contributions from lobbyists and employees of firms who receive earmarks from said lawmakers. Take deceased Rep. John Murtha as an example. Murtha could repeatedly state that all that concerned him was getting jobs and infrastructure into his economically depressed district. Same goes for Rep. Don Young, former Sen. Ted Stevens and former Sen. Robert Byrd. All the campaign contributions they were getting didn’t matter when they signed off on earmarks for their contributors because they were just looking for viable job-creating projects. You can’t necessarily prove that anything illegal happened.

All of that brings us to the Op-Ed by author and lawyer Scott Turow in today’s New York Times. Turow does the best job possible explaining the dysfunctional ways in which our legal system views and deals with campaign contributions. One person can be convicted of bribery for offering a $1,000 contribution in exchange for a vote while Rod Blagojevich walks free on a hung jury over charges that he held up funding for a children’s hospital over campaign contributions and so on and so on.

Our legal system accepts that the transmission of campaign contributions in exchange for official acts is illegal bribery, yet it fails to properly police this practice. This is mainly due to the circumstances described above. How do you prove that a contribution was intended as a bribe when the action may have taken place despite the contribution? It’s impossible. So you get a system where we scold people for the appearance of corruption or improper influence, but don’t do anything about it. Take this example that Turow lays out:

For example, in June 2009, the court decided a case involving Massey Coal and its chief executive, Joe Blankenship. (Coincidentally, Massey was the operator of a coal mine in West Virginia that exploded in April, killing 29 miners.) In 2004, after Massey had lost a $50-million fraud verdict to a rival coal company, Mr. Blankenship spent $3 million supporting the successful candidacy of Brent Benjamin to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, where Massey’s challenge of the fraud verdict was going to be heard.

Although Mr. Blankenship’s spending eclipsed the contributions of all of Judge Benjamin’s other donors put together, the judge subsequently refused to remove himself from Massey’s appeal. Unsurprisingly, the court voted to overturn the verdict against Massey, with Judge Benjamin providing the deciding vote.

The case eventually came to the United States Supreme Court, which by a 5-to-4 vote decided Justice Benjamin should have recused himself because of the “disproportionate” influence Mr. Blankenship’s money had in the election. Nonetheless, the court pointedly refused to require the same from other judges who received less grandiose campaign assistance from lawyers and litigants with cases before them.

Moreover, the court appeared persuaded that nothing criminal had occurred, even though its ruling concluded that it was “reasonably foreseeable” at the time that Mr. Benjamin would decide the Massey case and that Mr. Blankenship had a “vested interest” when he spent the money. Given that logic, who can blame Mr. Blagojevich — or Wanda Brandstetter — for asking, “Why me?”

The court ruled that the judge was corrupted, but that no law had been broken. This is the sort of dysfunctional world of campaign funding that we live in.