News that four state legislators in Alabama were indicted on federal corruption charges yesterday is just the latest incident of corruption that has come to quietly characterize the 2010 elections.
The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has tracked 26 known investigations of incumbent House members during the 111th Congress—12 Democrats and 14 Republicans. Most of these incumbents—including Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel and Rep. Maxine Waters—represent gerrymandered “safe seats,” thereby virtually ensuring their reelection despite the investigations. No wonder a recent Zogby poll found that 77 percent of independent voters say that “the American government is broken.”
According to The Daily Beast’s Election Oracle, there are 17 House, Senate and governor’s races where chatter about “corruption” makes up at least 15 percent of the overall online conversation. This includes 35 percent of the digital debate surrounding the race to succeed Congressman Alan Mollohan in West Virginia's 1st District. Mollohan, the ranking Democrat on the House Ethics Committee, lost his primary this year after audits alleged that he’d steered at least $202 million in federal funds to five local nonprofit groups and received $146,000 in political donations from people affiliated with those organizations in return. (The Justice Department ultimately declined to press charges.)
Christine “I am not a witch” O’Donnell is facing a complaint filed by CREW to the Federal Election Commission and the Delaware U.S. Attorney’s Office asking them to open a criminal investigation into whether O’Donnell “embezzled” past Senate runs' campaign funds to support herself, as former aides have alleged.
The sensational charges against Blago were when the bloom started to come off the post-election Obama rose, and allegations about “the Chicago way” started to gain credibility.
But O’Donnell is far from the only candidate facing questions about financial improprieties.
In New York, an unsavory pattern of primarily Democratic elected officials using nonprofit charities to enrich themselves and their families has emerged. Investigations have implicated Queens Congressman Gregory Meeks, former Rep. Floyd Flake, New York Senate President Malcolm Smith, and Queens Borough President Helen Marshall. The powerful Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez is now alleged to be connected to a similar racket.
On the opposite end of the country, eight current and former city officials from Bell, California, were arrested in a $5.5 million embezzlement case the Los Angeles County D.A. described as “corruption on steroids.” Longtime City Manager Robert Rizzo paid himself a generous salary of $787,638 per year in this working-class and largely Latino Southern California town. Not bad for government work.
• Election Oracle: Predictions for Midterm Races• The Daily Beast’s John Avlon: 15 Races the Tea Party OwnsAnd then, of course, there’s Chicago. Illinois’ buffoonish former Governor Rod Blagojevich, who was found guilty on one count of lying to the FBI with a hung jury on 23 other counts of corruption resulting from charges he tried to sell the Senate seat once held by President Obama. His case is on appeal, but the track record for governors in the land of Lincoln isn’t good—three of his predecessors in the past four decades have been convicted.
In retrospect, the sensational charges against Blago—with accompanying taped transcripts straight out of a D-grade gangster film—were when the bloom started to come off the post-election Obama rose, and allegations about "the Chicago way" started to gain credibility.
Corruption has motivated midterm election repudiations before. In 2006, when Republicans were turned out on their ear after controlling Congress, exit polls showed that "corruption and ethics in government" was identified as the top issue motivating voters that year, outpacing terrorism, the economy, and Iraq.
The odious Jack Abramoff scandals—recounted in documentaries and the upcoming film Casino Jack—led to the imprisonment of congressmen, Bush administration officials, and apparatchik staffers alike. Unrelated convictions against California conservative Rep. Duke Cunningham for taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors and the pre-election finding that Florida Congressman Mark Foley had been sending inappropriate text messages to underage male congressional pages also took their toll.
In 1994, when Democrats lost control of Congress, scandals involving the abuse of House franking privileges led to the brief imprisonment of House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (of Chicago) and contributed to the loss of Speaker Tom Foley’s seat.
Neither party has a monopoly on virtue or vice, and this year’s drumbeat of corruption cannot be blamed on Democrats alone. But it is directly contributing to the loss of confidence Americans feel in their government. There have been so many allegations and investigations that they almost fade into the background against the Technicolor fearmongering that passes for partisan debate. The sheer volume of dollars surrounding our campaigns and spent by our government in recent decades has contributed to these new cases—as P.J. O’Rourke warned, “When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.”
History shows that voter anger about corruption leads us to clean House. It’s just too bad that because of the rigged system of redistricting, so many implicated incumbents are more likely to be indicted than lose their seat in a competitive general election.
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.