Corruption Tsunami

From small towns to Washington D.C., America is awash in political payoff scandals. Mokhiber and Weissman take you on the tour.


We ran into Charles Korb the other day.

Korb is the president of the Committee for Economic Development, a group of major American corporate executives who want campaign finance reform. They propose banning soft-money contributions to national political parties, increasing individual contribution limits to $3,000 per candidate, and implementing a system of partial public funding that matches individual donations of up to $200 on a two-to-one basis.

Korb and the corporate executives at CED don’t mind big business running roughshod over the political system — just as long as it isn’t overtly corrupt or perceived as corrupt. “A vibrant and well-functioning business system will not remain viable in an environment of real or perceived corruption,” said a CED report released last year on the subject.

Korb conceded that if soft money was banned, corporations would simply shift the cash into their inside-the-beltway Washington lobby operations. And that was fine with him. The companies are sick of being shaken down by every two-bit politician offering to defend this or that corporate interest. And Korb and his colleagues rightly fear that the growing appearance of corruption will undermine public confidence in the corporate system.

Korb has reason to be worried. A veritable tsunami of corruption is crashing over the countryside. There is, first and foremost, the endless amount of soft-money cash flowing from corporate coffers into federal campaigns and national political parties. Whether this cash is buying favors is beside the point — it appears to be buying favors, and that’s what is worrying Korb.

Potentially more dangerous is the real corruption that is exploding at the state and local levels. Washington’s culture of corruption is sending the message that political payola is OK — and the country is responding.

Let’s take the tour:

In Illinois, Governor George Ryan is fighting for his political life. Federal investigators allege that under Ryan’s tenure as Secretary of State, the state issued driver’s licenses to truckers and other drivers in exchange for cash payments that went into a political slush fund for Ryan. Several of those drivers ended up in fatal highway accidents. A number of government officials have been indicted, and federal prosecutors are gunning for the governor.

In California, Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush is under fire from consumer groups and the state’s largest newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, for shielding State Farm and two other insurance companies from $3.37 billion in fines in exchange for $10.75 million in contributions to non-profit organizations and to Quackenbush’s own political committees.

In Oklahoma earlier this month, federal officials alleged that the state Health Department’s deputy commissioner solicited bribes from nursing home owners in exchange for regulatory favors and used at least a portion of the payoffs to gamble on horse races.

According to a report in the Daily Oklahoman, FBI agents arrested Brent VanMeter at his office after he allegedly picked up payoff money from an Oklahoma nursing home owner. VanMeter was charged with one count of soliciting a bribe. VanMeter’s attorney said his client plans to plead not guilty.

The Governor of Oklahoma, Frank Keating, called the health department scandal “an issue of raw, unadulterated corruption.”

Keating and CED’s Korb are trying to protect the corporate system — stamp out obvious forms of corruption and overt appearances, the better to let corporations rule.

Corruption is debilitating to any democracy. But a system where giant corporations wield tremendous power over ordinary citizens is an open invitation to corruption. In addition to criminally prosecuting illegal bribery and outlawing legalized bribery, we must also fundamentally question the nature of the corporate beast.

Should a corporation, a public creation, be free to gain unlimited power and wield that power over our democracy? Should corporations be allowed to have free speech rights — the same as living, breathing human beings?

The City Council of the northern California community of Point Arena had it right last month when it voted four-to-one to publicly side with Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black’s 1938 opinion, in which Black stated, “I do not believe the word ‘person’ in the 14th Amendment includes corporations.”

The people of Point Arena were critical of the US Supreme Court — Justice Black excepted — for bestowing free speech, lobbying, and propaganda rights on corporations.

“Corporations enjoy privileges that real people do not. Corporations have become super people,” the resolution read. “Corporations have effectively become our governors. Today workers must check their personhood and natural rights at the gate as they enter corporate property. But the corporation remains a person and asserts its power wherever it goes.”

“There has been no real challenge to corporate power for 100 years,” the people of Point Arena said. “Revoking corporate personhood is a logical and vital step in the process of controlling our country and community.”

Now there’s a sentiment Korb and Keating might have a difficult time getting their corporate patrons to support.