Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Filthy lucre

By Don Klein

We used to make lots of fun when growing up by suggesting money was the root of all evil. When we were young we often used the phrase "filthy lucre" to describe how money dishonored otherwise nice people. We knew it was wrong to influenced by cold cash but secretly we all hoped to have an opportunity to be so tainted.

As we moved through life we noticed that the concept of filthy lucre was alive and well everywhere we turned. People, try as they may to do the right thing often are swayed by the lure of money. Immature boys would hone their athletic skills at the expense of a good education not because they loved sports but because of the prospect of making big bucks as a pro.

Little girls, some as young as five, are entered into beauty contests with eyes focused on an ultimate career in films so they could dress up in fancy clothes and live an eventual life of luxury as a superstar. The prospect of success and the money that goes with it seems to drive the ambitions of many.

Most of these end up as disappointments, but that doesn’t stop the next wave of youngsters from trying.

You would think politics is different. Many say they went into public service because of a earnest desire to do good. They say they want to improve the lot of the people, but once elected or appointed to powerful office, the filthy lucre syndrome takes hold. Often the influence of money is subtle and almost imperceptible, often it is bold and ugly.

Why would a respectable politician like Tom Daschle need to place his career in jeopardy for the sake of a chauffeur driven car provided by an organization that wants a Congressional connection? Why would a solid, up by his bootstraps John Edwards, need a sordid love affair at the potential height of his political career? Why would Charles Rangel, a senior member of the House of Representatives seek a $10 million gift from AIG to build a school in his honor?

The answer is power. If you got it, you use it, you take advantage of it.

Power was what got Newt Gingrich in trouble in 1997 when he was brought up on ethics charges by the House of Representatives, when he was House Speaker at the time. There were 84 charges filed against him but the most serious was claiming tax-exemption status for college courses he ran for political purposes. He paid a fine for $300,000 and resigned his seat for the 1999 term.

What brought him down? Filthy lucre, again.

Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a Vietnam veteran who served multiple terms in the House of Representatives admitted taking bribes to the tune of $2.4 million from defense contractors and another $1 million in other bribes. He denied it at first than confessed and eventually was sentenced to prison in California.

And then we have the bizarre case of Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana. When the FBI raided his home in 2006 suspecting bribery funds extracted from a defense contractor, they found $90,000 in cash in his freezer. Another $10,000 was wrapped in freezer food containers. After a series of trials and appeals, Jefferson finally was defeated for reelection in 2008.

The answer rings in our ears over and over again: Filthy lucre. Filthy lucre. Filthy lucre.

These are just a few of the recent cases, but we keep learning over and over again what motivates many of our trusted lawmakers. It not always is money. There are other ways to satisfy an individual’s need to exercise power. Bill Clinton found it in a satellite office adjacent to the Oval Office. Others found it in writing suggestive letters to Congressional pages.

The most notable – in terms of rank -- of all cases of political greed during last half century was Spiro Agnew, the vice president in the Richard Nixon administration. The full impact of the Agnew scandal never reached absolute momentum because ten months later, Nixon, who himself was neck deep in a personal scandal, was forced to resign or face impeachment in the wake of the Watergate case.

Agnew’s situation had nothing to do with Watergate but was just as surly. He was charged with receiving a $10,000 cash bribe in a plain envelope on White House grounds. The bribe allegedly was a payoff to Agnew who when governor of Maryland had provided lucrative state contracts to a contractor.

On October 10, 1973 the country was treated to the dismaying specter of the vice president of the United States pleading no contest to bribery charges in a Baltimore court. In exchange for his resignation Agnew was sentenced to three years of unsupervised probation and fined $10,000, the exact amount of the bribe.

Filthy lucre at its zenith, but pretty small by today’s standards.

When you have power, your have privileges. That’s the way it should be. Executives, like mayors, governors ad presidents deserve respect, deserve their prerogatives and entitlements. It comes with the job. They have nice offices, usually a home provided by taxpayers, have large staffs working for them, are given personal security and officially provided speedy and comfortable transportation. It’s a tough job and deserves rewards.

But those rewards cannot be monetary and cannot be in exchange for official action because legally no one is said to be above the law, especially elected officials sworn to serve the people.

The enticement of filthy lucre has to be controlled.

No comments: