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The art and folly of distinguishing campaign contributions from bribes

When corporate lobbyists and CEOs hand over a wad of campaign cash to an officeholder, and then promptly receive a lucrative funding project for their company from the same officeholder, most of us know precisely what happened: The corporate executives and officeholder rewarded each other through the exchange of money, also known as a bribe.

But what we all know from common sense becomes clouded – and even denied – by the folly of our campaign finance system in which officeholders are required to raise campaign cash from the very same private interests that have business pending before them. The U.S.  Supreme Court codified this folly in its 1991 U.S. v. McCormick decision which said that the exchange of earmarks for campaign contributions cannot be assumed to constitute bribery because such conduct “in a very real sense is unavoidable so long as election campaigns are financed by private contributions or expenditures …”

So when Public Citizen pressed for the prosecution of Rep. Tom DeLay and others in the Westar bribery scandal – in which internal Westar Energy Company e-mails outlined the company’s plan to buy a “seat at the table” in a House energy conference committee by contributing cash to influential lawmakers in exchange for their support of a special regulatory exemption – neither the Department of Justice nor House ethics committee were willing to conclude it was bribery. Instead, the ethics committee concluded that an appearance of favorable treatment was indeed created by DeLay’s efforts to raise political funds from Westar and others at a 2002 golf outing timed to coincide with a legislative conference on a major energy bill. But, the committee stopped short of saying actual favors were traded for contributions .

The same rebuke of common sense judgment can be seen today in the PMA bribery scandal. Lobbyists for the now-defunct lobbying firm Paul Magliocchetti and Associates (PMA) “pushed or directed” executives of their corporate clients to target campaign contributions and attend fundraising events on behalf of congressional leaders with the authority to dole out earmarks to the companies. Thousands of dollars in campaign contributions were received from representatives of these companies to seven officeholders who then awarded millions of dollars in earmarks to the same companies.

The House ethics committee again could not see the bribery link. The committee concluded there was “no evidence that Members or their official staff were directly or indirectly engaged in seeking contributions in return for earmarks.”

How truly dumbfounded the ethics committee must be following yesterday’s indictment and arrest of Paul Magliocchetti by the Department of Justice on corruption charges. It turns out that Magliocchetti’s son already pleaded guilty to laundering PMA corporate funds for the purpose of making campaign contributions to enhance PMA’s influence on the Hill. Yesterday’s indictment charges that Paul Magliocchetti also laundered campaign contributions “to enrich both PMA and himself by increasing the firm’s base of current and potential clients, as well as among the elected public officials to whom PMA and its lobbyists sought access.”

Let us put these charges in a common sense perspective. This latest money-for-favors scandal is not only an indictment against PMA and the refusal of the congressional ethics committees to see the damage such obvious links cause to the integrity of Congress, it is an indictment against our inherently corrupt system of privately-financed campaigns.

The Court correctly understood this inevitable conflict of interest in its McCormick decision. It is time for us to correct the conflict by removing all this self-serving special interest money from politics and create a comprehensive system of publicly-financed campaigns.

It would also be useful if the ethics committees removed their blinders.

Craig Holman is the government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen. Flickr photo by roberthuffstutter.