How Congress Got Filled With Future Ex-Cons

This soft spot for rascals seems surprising in a nation founded by bluenose Puritans and virtue-obsessed Revolutionaries, but charming sinners often trump priggish saints.

How Congress Got Filled With Future Ex-Cons

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

With one U.S. senator standing trial and one ex-con congressman running for Congress, let’s face it: Americans admire goody-goodies, but love a good rogue.

Since Sept. 6, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) has been on trial, fighting a 22-count indictment for corruption; yet last year, 42 percent of New Jersey voters approved of him, with only 32 percent disapproving. Ex-congressman Michael Grimm just announced he wants to return to serving the people, having served time for tax fraud. He insists the prosecution was politically motivated—and is being hugged and high-fived in Staten Island diners.

This soft spot for rascals seems surprising in a nation founded by bluenose Puritans and virtue-obsessed Revolutionaries. But considering that Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush beat Al Gore, and Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush, charming sinners clearly trump priggish saints in our politics.

The same narcissism that makes politicians say “vote for me, save the world,” leads to reasoning: “the rules don’t apply to me, I’m saving the world.” From cowboys to pioneers, from inventors to moguls, America’s most popular history-makers have often been rule-breakers. Breaking-out-of-the-box encourages a culture of breaking the law. Seeking the smoky, sexy bad boy as leader—and it is a male model of mischievous jock, not straight-A student—accepts the risks of going astray rather than staying staid.

While, ex-politicians usually end up in law firms, lobbying shops, or retirement homes, those who end up in the Big House fall into three categories. Most abuse the power they’ve gotten. Some violate the laws they’ve been trusted with writing. And while many corrupt pols claim to be martyrs to some cause, few American politicians go up the river on principle.

If convicted, Menendez will join other disgraced pols in the hall of infamy remembering those who violated the public trust. Some are former congressional colleagues like Chaka Fattah, convicted of 23 corruption charges in 2016, and Jesse Jackson Jr., who pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud—but allegedly personally used more than $750,000 in campaign funds.

Others were the Abscam 7, caught in an FBI influence-peddling sting in 1978 or the unhappy precedent-setters such as Sen. Joseph Burton, convicted of bribery in 1904, and Sen. John Hipple Mitchell, convicted of abusing his power to help a client in the Oregon Land Fraud in 1906.

Michael Grimm’s troubles are Icarus snags—he flew too high. He pled guilty to tax evasion for under-reporting $900,000 when he ran a restaurant, Healthalicious. Had he not entered politics, the fraud probably would have gone undiscovered. By contrast, when Mel Reynolds was found guilty of statutory rape in 1995, or when Bill Janklow was convicted of manslaughter eight years later for running a stop sign and killing a motorcyclist, members of Congress faced the music like regular citizens.

The Constitution only requires that a congressional candidate be at least 25 years old, a citizen for at least seven years, and a state resident. Therefore, while Congress may vote to restrict or expel a member, it is unconstitutional to stop anyone eligible from running for Congress. During the 2006 election, many outsiders assumed Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson was going to lose his seat, having lost his dignity when the FBI discovered $90,000 in bribe money hidden in his freezer. All that cold cash justified the first FBI search warrant of a congressional office ever. Still, Jefferson won re-election and barely lost in 2008. His supporters believed he was innocent until proven guilty. Besides, he was still delivering pork for the district. Jefferson is now serving a record 13-year bribery sentence.

As excruciating as it is to watch any doomed politician squirm, there’s something particularly brazen—and pathetic—about a politician who runs for office while already indicted—or incarcerated. In 2002, despite having been expelled by the House after being convicted on 10 counts of bribery and racketeering, James Traficant tried recapturing his seat as an independent. The once-colorful congressman best known for a toupee that looked like a rabid animal, and for ending his speeches crying “Beam me up,” only wooed 15 percent of the voters as Federal Prisoner number 31213-060.

Traficant and Jefferson swaggered in the tradition of the infamous Boston mayor, congressman, and Massachusetts governor, James Michael Curley. In a four-decades-long political career, Curley justified all his abusive scams as Boston Irish payback for longstanding Yankee abuse. Besides, Curley offered boss rule’s base rationale: “Curley gets it done.” In 1945, facing indictment, Congressman Curley decided to return to his old job and run for mayor of Boston.

Winning his fourth non-consecutive term didn’t help two months later when the feds convicted him of mail fraud. Refusing to resign, bullying the state legislature not to throw him out, Curley entered Federal prison in Danbury. Over 100,000 Bostonians, and 100 Members of Congress petitioned for his release. The only holdout from the Massachusetts delegation was Curley’s congressional successor, John F. Kennedy. Eventually, President Harry Truman commuted the sentence, Curley returned to mayoring. Alas, his greed tripled the tax burden, alienating his base and ending his career.

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Amid these blowhards, perverts, blackmailers, and bribe-takers, two free speech martyrs stand out. The only con ever elected to Congress, Matthew Lyon, was re-elected in 1798, while serving four months in prison under the Alien and Sedition Acts for condemning President John Adams’ “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice.” Lyons’ Democratic-Republican party rallied around him—and he trounced his adversary. Today, Lyon is best remembered for deploying fire tongs when the Federalist Roger Griswold attacked him with a wooden cane: A famous drawing shows how violent partisanship was even back then.

Finally, the only serious presidential run from the pen should stir some pride. Eugene V. Debs ran afoul of wartime sedition rules by denouncing the draft during World War I. When sentenced to 10 years in prison in April, 1918, he proclaimed: “While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” In 1920, Debs ran for president, as a Socialist, and won 919,799 votes. For Christmas, 1921, President Warren Harding commuted the sentence.

Stories like Debs’ and Lyons’ are rare because America usually passes the Sharansky Town Square Test. The Israeli leader and Soviet-Jewish human rights activist, Natan Sharansky, explained in The Case for Democracy, that “If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society.”

Alas, too many politicians confuse America’s “free society” with a freebie society. But just because more are caught these days doesn’t mean more are guilty. Modern law enforcement excels at catching those who confuse our tolerance for their silver tongues, and weakness for their forked tongues, with an invitation to have sticky fingers too.