03.07.10

10 Most Outrageous Scandals

New York's political controversies dominated the headlines this week. Samuel P. Jacobs on the biggest breaches of public trust you don't know about.

New York’s finest, Gov. David Paterson and Rep. Charlie Rangel, battled it out in the headlines last week for the most boneheaded political scandal. Did the governor really telephone a woman who was about to go to court to accuse a Paterson aide of domestic assault? Did the dean of New York’s congressional delegation really have private companies foot the bill for jaunts to Antigua and St. Maarten? Boom time for the tabloids; bad time for New York Democrats. While New York is dominating the scandal pages today, what’s the rest of the country up to? As boastful as the Empire State is, New Yorkers have some competition out there. Like brazen Boston brassiere embezzler Diane Wilkerson or the Florida pol accused of fudging his state’s budget to sneak in a secret $6 million airplane hangar for a friend. In Connecticut, a former Bush White House lawyer was arrested for nearly strangling his wife to death. (He pleaded not guilty.) In California, a hot mic caught a potty-mouthed assemblyman discussing his proclivity for spanking a lobbyist lover. In North Carolina, a governor is accused of grabbing gobs of free flights, running up hundreds of thousands of dollars without paying.

The Daily Beast takes you on a cross-country trip through the most despicable, troubling, and, sometimes, just plain laughable political scandals of the moment.

Gary Becker: Small-Time Mayor, Big-Time Creep
A little more than a year ago, the mayor of the southern Wisconsin town of Racine was pinched by an undercover agent who had posed as a 14-year-old girl online. The 51-year-old father of two went lingerie shopping for the girl and then planned to meet her at a mall. The sting went into operation after a city worker found what seemed to be child pornography on the mayor’s computer. In December, Becker pleaded guilty to second-degree sexual assault. At his sentencing hearing Wednesday, the judge described the former mayor’s decision to go shopping for small-sized lingerie to be “almost like a death wish.” Becker was sentenced to three years in prison.

Diane Wilkerson: Booby-Trapped State Senator
It has taken a lot to stand out as corrupt in Massachusetts politics recently. In 2008, one state senator was indicted for a horrific romp through the city of Lowell, where he sexually harassed four women during the course of one afternoon. (He pleaded not guilty and checked himself into a hospital.) Three straight speakers of the Massachusetts House of Representatives have faced criminal charges. But Diane Wilkerson, the first black woman to serve in the Massachusetts state senate, may have outdone them all when she was captured by an undercover agent stuffing a bribe into her bra. She has admitted to taking nearly $70,000 without reporting it. A criminal case is still pending, but whatever its result, the photo of her placing dollar bills in her undergarments will go into the scandal hall of fame.

Ray Sansom: $6 Million Dollar Man?
Ray Sansom resigned from the Florida House of Representatives last Saturday, facing criminal charges. The former speaker stands accused of sending tens of millions of dollars to a political benefactor and employer. While he was either budget writer or house speaker, a total of $35 million was directed to the Northwest Florida State College—including $6 million for an airport hangar—a university that he went to work for the same day he became speaker. Sansom has maintained he is innocent. The affair not only has local political ramifications; it could spill over onto Marco Rubio’s U.S. Senate campaign. Rubio was state house speaker when the $6 million airport building deal went down. As Sansom left the Florida House last week, he pointed at Rubio, the conservative superstar, as the reason for its passing.

John Michael Farren: Bush Lawyer, Accused Wife Beater
John Michael Farren, 57, served two years as George W. Bush’s deputy White House counsel. Now after an alleged violent attack, he could face serious prison time. In early January, Farren’s wife Mary delivered divorce papers. Two days later, she was beaten unconscious with a flashlight and nearly choked to death. John Farren was charged with the crime. When police arrived at the Farrens’ $4 million New Canaan, Connecticut, home, they found the lawyer with blood on his hands. He has pleaded not guilty.

Mike Duvall: Dirty-Talking Assemblyman
Duvall, a conservative representative from Yorba Linda, California, was recorded last July, thanks to a hot microphone, bragging to a colleague about his sexual exploits. His mate of late wore “little eye-patch underwear.” She enjoyed being spanked, the lawmaker, a champion of family values, said. Not only were the Orange County legislator’s remarks unseemly, they point up some ethically questionable behavior as well: Duvall’s younger flame turned out to be a lobbyist, a representative of a California energy company; Duvall served on the committee which oversaw the state’s utilities. He resigned when the comments were made public in September. The FBI subsequently investigated, but decided not to pursue federal charges.

Mike Easley: High-Flying Governor
In North Carolina, former Gov. Mike Easley is giving New York’s David Paterson a run for his money in the most-investigated sweepstakes. According to Charlotte’s News & Observer, Easley accepted free flights from supporters. He participated in shady real-estate deals with one of those supporters. Easley helped clear the way for his wife, getting her a job at North Carolina State University. The governor was fined $100,000 for violating campaign-finance laws. In testimony, Easley said that he didn’t know the flights weren't paid for. "Well, to my knowledge I don't think I've ever seen a campaign report,” he said in October. The scandal has cast a shadow over Easley’s successor in the statehouse as well; Gov. Bev Perdue is now under fire for allegedly taking unreported campaign flights. Perdue has said that the unreported flights were detected by an internal audit and accused state Republicans of trying to distract voters. "While we're about doing the people's work and help put people back to work,” she has said, “you have others throwing rocks and creating issues that aren't there.”

Rodd Jetton: Naughty Allegations
Remember former Missouri House Speaker Rod Jetton? Sure you do. Back in December, Jetton was charged with second-degree assault in what police described as an S&M session gone terribly wrong. According to a probable cause statement, Jetton told the woman that she would have avoided a beating if she had said their safety word, “green balloons.” Jetton has pleaded not guilty. But it turns out Jetton’s troubles didn’t end there. Last week, reports emerged that federal investigators are looking into Jetton for a pay-for-play arrangement with strip-club owners. With an unfavorable adult-entertainment bill heading into the Missouri House, strip-club owners deposited $35,000 into a fundraising committee connected to a Jetton intimate. The bill, with Jetton’s assistance, was buried in a committee. (Jetton has said that the money had “no bearing on that bill.”)

Hiram Monserrate, Convicted Domestic Abuser
Monserrate, an ousted state senator, has had some tough company in this very corrupt season for New York pols. In January, a security video surfaced of an altercation with his girlfriend. Monserrate was shown dragging a bleeding woman from his apartment. He was charged with slashing her face with a broken bottle. After being convicted of misdemeanor assault, he was bounced from Albany. Gov. David Paterson stepped out against Monserrate after the domestic-violence investigation, saying he was unfit to serve. Now the governor is tangled up in his own domestic-violence problems, as he reportedly called a woman who was assaulted by his top aide. Meanwhile, Monserrate is waging an independent campaign to get his state senate seat back.

Willie Herenton, Leaving No Punch Unpulled
Let’s call this one a scandal in the making. Willie Herenton served as mayor of Memphis for nearly two decades. In March 2008, only 90 days after winning reelection, he announced his resignation, intending to become school superintendent. Then he changed his mind. By June, he changed his mind once more. His resignation finally stuck, and he stepped down to focus on a run to unseat U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen in Tennessee’s 9th District. Since then, Herenton’s campaign manager has said that Cohen is unqualified for the position because he is a white man. “This seat was set aside for people who look like me,” the campaign manager, who is black, told The New York Times . “It wasn’t set aside for a Jew or a Christian. It was set aside so that blacks could have representation.” Herenton, needless to say, is black. In the past, Cohen, who is Jewish, has said, “I vote like a 45-year-old black woman.” Herenton himself has proven no more diplomatic, telling the Memphis Flyer, "I've known Cohen for over 30 years, and, to be honest with you, he's an asshole. Anybody that knows Cohen knows he's an asshole." Keep an eye on this campaign, as the racial theatrics are sure to heat up.

Roy Ashburn, Anti-Gay Hypocrite?
Just entering phase-one scandal territory this week: California State Senator Ray Ashburn, a Republican, was caught driving drunk on his way out from a Sacramento gay club called Faces, according to a local television station. Ashburn was found with an unidentified man in the car. A father of four children, Ashburn has voted against every gay-rights bill since joining the state senate six years ago. The openly gay mayor of West Sacramento told CBS13, the same station that originally broke the story, that he has seen Ashburn at a gay club before. Ashburn has stepped down from office and said in a statement, "I am deeply sorry for my actions and offer no excuse for my poor judgment. I accept complete responsibility for my conduct and am prepared to accept the consequences for what I did."

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.