Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What constitutes corruption?

At what point is a government official guilty of criminal behavior, rather than just stupidity or laziness?

To me, it is apparent that many people have no problem considering “laziness” and “criminality” to be the same, although what I really suspect is that some people are willing to use the criminal justice system to benefit their partisan political beliefs.

THERE ARE SOME Republicans who would love it if they could somehow declare the Democratic Party to be a criminal enterprise, and that somehow anyone not agreeing in full with their beliefs is somehow worthy of a few years of incarceration.

I also have no doubt there are some Democrats who are nitwit enough to think just the opposite situation should be true.

Then, there may very well be those people whose knowledge (or lack thereof) about the workings of government make them distrust it to the point where they want to automatically believe that somehow, it all has to be a scam.

I have always found such an attitude to be a sad commentary about our own society that we have otherwise rational people who want to start locking political people up for what amounts to no rational reason.

THIS KIND OF attitude is going to arouse the suspicions of all those people who are ever so eager to have Rod Blagojevich sent to prison.

The man was not popular amongst his government colleagues during his six years as Illinois governor in large part because he tried to treat those colleagues as though they were cretins who somehow ought to be irrelevant to the process.

So when federal prosecutors came up with a case they think severe enough to warrant a criminal trial some time during 2010, political people were more than willing to pile on – to the point that they become so obsessed with the “I” word that Blagojevich got a last laugh on his now-former colleagues by saddling the people of Illinois with Roland Burris as a U.S. senator.

A part of me has also wondered for years how much of the ill will that is still felt toward former Gov. George Ryan is due to the fact that on issues ranging from the death penalty to U.S./Cuba relations to government spending (remember “Illinois First”), he was willing to ignore the desires and beliefs of the conservative ideologue portion of the Republican Party that theoretically should have been among his allies.

THAT DISGUST WAS so intense that it caused people to overstate the role that Ryan personally had in the deaths of the six Willis children in a 1994 automobile accident, and still causes them to become irate at the recently-expressed thought by his attorneys that he might be entitled to a portion of his pension earned from serving in government for more than three decades.

I couldn’t help but notice the Chicago Tribune this week ran a significant story detailing about a potential “threat” to the upcoming Blagojevich trial – one that might seriously put a crimp in the ability of federal prosecutors to imply that Blagojevich’s egomaniacal behavior as governor is worthy of being labeled criminal.

The Supreme Court (in D.C., not Springpatch) is considering cases that could require more detailed explanations of what constitutes “honest services fraud,” which in some ways amounts to a political equivalent of the RICO statute so often used to fight organized crime.

“Honest service fraud” charges often amount to saying that a government official’s bad behavior hurt the public so badly that the result ought to be criminal. Behavior by politicians involving contributions, gifts and donations often don’t literally qualify as bribery.

SO PROSECUTORS USE the more vaguely worded statute to justify a trial. Some legal minds (including Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia – it’s not often that I agree with him) have gone so far to say that prosecutors are misusing such vague statutes to bolster their own criminal prosecution records.

Now I’m not about to predict how the Supreme Court of the United States is going to come down on this issue, although a part of me would get a laugh if the efforts of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago to prosecute Blagojevich gets hampered (if not outright fowled up) by having to more clearly define why the former governor’s activity ought to be illegal.

And I know there are people in this state who would want to riot if the high court ruled in such a manner that Ryan were suddenly given a legitimate issue upon which to try to appeal his criminal convictions.

Not that the issue is connected to just these two former governors. Ultimately, covering a trial involving government corruption involves having to define what constitutes a bribe – because rarely is the matter so clearly defined.

I STILL REMEMBER a case from the summer of 1997 when I was a reporter-type in Springfield and officials with Management Services of Illinois were on trial in U.S. District Court in central Illinois for the contract they had with the Illinois Department of Public Aid.

Prosecutors said the private company’s work was worth little to the state, particularly the millions the agency received. They also cited the fact that MSI’s executives were friendly with Public Aid officials to the point of offering up gifts ranging from steaks and lobsters to trips to gambling casinos.

There was nothing resembling a direct connection between any single gift and any single payment on the state contract. Yet a jury went along with prosecutors and came back with convictions on many (but not all) of the charges. There is a part of me that thought then, and still thinks today whenever I recall the case, that what these officials were guilty of was little more than being too generous with their gifts.

In short, they acted a little too stupidly in public. Which may also be the very act that Blagojevich is guilty of, nothing more.


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