“The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”
The revelation days ago that federal agents took into custody Norman Hsu — yet another fugitive financier linked to either the Republican or Democratic parties — coincided with the announcement by the United States Attorney for New Jersey that eleven New Jersey politicians, including two state legislators, had been arrested for taking bribes in return for government contracts.
While not directly related, these events offered further confirmation to a scandal-weary public that criminal activity can often be found at the national, state and local level of American politics. Every few weeks an elected official of either party has a “Casablanca” moment and declares they are “shocked, shocked” that they received tainted money and then dutifully donates the ill-gotten booty to charity. After hand-wringing by watchdog groups, tut-tutting by editorial boards and empty promises of reform, politicians go back to business as usual.
Americans may now ask a more serious question: Has criminal activity become woven into the fabric of the operations of the Democratic and Republican parties?
If the these two political parties were different entities – corrupt unions, say, or corporations – there is no doubt that federal prosecutors would bring racketeering charges and seek a monitor to oversee the activities of at least some thoroughly criminal and corrupt local and state party organizations.
The notion that the two parties and their various subsidiaries engage in racketeering is not a radical notion. Federal judge Michael M. Baylson suggested on his own initiative from the bench (sua sponte in legal parlance) that racketeering charges be brought against politicians and lobbyists in a 2005 case in which two executives of Commerce Bank were found guilty of bribing Philadelphia elected officials while seeking government favors.
The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) of 1970 was originally passed by Congress to target the mob. But the Act has been widely interpreted and in dozens of cases has been applied to terrorist organizations, corrupt business and hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan. The Supreme Court has never ruled on whether RICO can be used to target governmental entities or political parties, but there appears to be no bar.
New Jersey may not be the most corrupt state in the union, but it may be a good place for prosecutors to begin using the racketeering laws because criminal activity is central to the practice of both political parties. Over ninety New Jersey elected officials have been found guilty or pled to criminal activity in the past few years, including many Democratic and Republican power brokers. Well-known New Jersey lobbyist Alan Marcus confided to New York Magazine: “In New Jersey, you contribute money not for access but results. Anybody who doesn’t admit that is lying.” In the Garden State, the practice of exchanging money for government contracts and favors is routinely referred to as “Pay-To-Play,” leaving no doubt that an illegal quid pro quo is the order of the day.
The logic of the political money race and of trading government contracts for cash contributions has no end. When even the New York Governor – who has somewhat of a record of fighting corruption – finds his own administration mired in a criminal investigation in its first few months, it is time to reflect on how to end a money-chase-at-all-costs system that forces individuals and organizations to skirt the law.
If prosecutors get serious about using the racketeering laws to target individuals and political party entities in a bi-partisan fashion, the possibility of restoring the public trust might begin.