Skelos, Clinton, And The Inherent Corruption Of Politics

The fundamental premise of the progressive political vision is that fairness and justice in human affairs can be had by delegating to government-employed experts the job of making decisions for us and allocating society's resources.  And so every year in the ongoing quest to achieve perfect fairness lots of society's resources get channeled through the government, whether it be through "anti-poverty" programs, or "affordable" housing, or food stamps, or the takeover of the energy sector in the name of "climate justice," or whatever.

Did anybody ever stop to consider that there is no such thing among humans as a completely neutral, fair expert who never looks out for the interest of him/herself?  The allocation of resources by governments (all levels) in this country is above 40% of GDP, or around $7 trillion per year, which by the way is still well below where it is in Europe as a percent of GDP.  Obviously there is tremendous money to be had by currying favor with government officials and thereby getting some of that money directed your way.

So how to get your hands on some of the $7 trillion?  One idea would be to do an explicit trade with a sitting pol or bureaucrat.  "I'll give you $1 million if you get $10 million of state funds awarded to my 'anti-poverty' agency."  That kind of explicit quid pro quo with a sitting functionary is called bribery, and will end you in jail -- and appropriately so.  But there are a million fact scenarios in this world.  How about if you just make the mil a campaign contribution?  OK, they've put limits on that.  How about if you divide the mil up into smaller increments and give it to a hundred or two hundred pols?  How about if a pol has a year or two off between holding one office and running for the next -- Can you just give that person unlimited amounts?  How about if a pol you are lobbying asks for help in finding his son a job, and you make a few calls to your friends?

You may have different views on whether some of these things are or should be criminal acts.  The law can prohibit explicit quid pro quos, but the fact is that it is not possible to stamp out the human reality of people in power using that power to benefit those who have somehow helped them along the way.  Or to put it another way, all politics is inherently corrupt.  You can criminalize the most blatant abuses, like explicit bribery, but the next-closest abuses that cannot be effectively criminalized are almost as bad.  And then there is the phenomenon that the processes of prosecuting and convicting the alleged bribe-takers are also inherently corrupt.  For example, if the current prosecutor is a Democrat, might he prosecute a Republican for corruption when a fellow Democrat who is simultaneously doing something as bad or far worse avoids investigation entirely?  Of course.  And I certainly don't mean to suggest that you couldn't reverse the parties there and have the statement be equally true.

And that brings us to the cases of Dean Skelos and Hillary Clinton.  I assume every reader here knows who Madame Hillary is, but for those outside New York, Dean Skelos, a Republican (in this very blue state) was until last week the Majority Leader of the New York State Senate.  As Majority Leader Skelos is the guy who has in recent years had the seemingly almost impossible task of keeping the Republicans in control of the State Senate, and who actually managed to win an increase in their precarious Senate majority in the 2014 elections.  Or to put it another way, Skelos is a guy the Democrats in New York would very much like to be rid of.  Skelos' career hit a stumbling block on May 1 when he was charged by the federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, under the direction of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, with six counts of various sorts of corruption.  Here is the criminal complaint.  After briefly struggling to maintain his leadership position despite the charges, Skelos gave up and was replaced by another guy on May 11.  

It would be hard not to have noticed the recent record of federal prosecutors in New York of bringing flaky charges against high profile defendants and having the charges ultimately thrown out.  A notable example would be the case against Joe Bruno, Skelos' immediate predecessor as Majority Leader of the State Senate, whose conviction was reversed on appeal, after which a jury acquitted him on re-trial in May 2014, barely a year ago.    Then there are the 85 or so "insider trading" convictions obtained by Mr. Bharara's office, half or so of which are in a slow-motion process of falling apart now that the Second Circuit has determined that what the perpetrators were prosecuted for was not a crime.  For other examples of flaky high profile prosecutions here in New York, try clicking my "phony prosecutions" tag.  Nevertheless, there is a remarkable degree of lack of skepticism about the current charges against Skelos.  For example, the New York Post is the most reliable supporter of Republicans among the local press organs, and it promptly called for his ouster as soon as the charges were announced.  Aside from some of his Senate colleagues, it is hard to find anyone standing up for Skelos.

On the other hand, read the charges against Skelos and you will find them remarkably thin.  This is all about Skelos allegedly trying to help his son Adam get some paying work.  There is no allegation of any money improperly going to Skelos himself.  The total amount of money alleged to have improperly changed hands seems relatively trivial -- $218,000 if I am counting correctly, and over a period of four years.  Of the $218,000, almost all, $198,000, is from a consulting contract that Adam got with an unnamed and uncharged environmental technology company.  Supposedly the company gave Adam the consulting gig because the dad got the company a $12 million contract with Nassau County.  But wait a minute -- Skelos didn't have any position with Nassau County.  The contract was subject to approval by the County Legislature, and got that.  These legislators may well all be friends of Skelos (his State Senate seat is in Nassau County), but it can't possibly be that he controlled this decision in any real sense.  That's rather a large gap in this thing.  Throw that out and you have a big $20,000 remaining.  The 20K was supposedly a fee for real estate "title work" referred to Adam by a large campaign contributor to Skelos and Senate Republicans with interests in the rent regulation renewal and extensions of tax exemptions, and the allegation is that Adam didn't do any title work.  OK, but did he do anything compensable related to it, like maybe being the salesman for the work?  Then there's this: throughout the complaint are statements that Skelos "pressured" the subjects to throw fake work to his son.  In evaluating that I see that there are lots of quotes here of things said in meetings -- clearly they had people wearing wires and telephone lines tapped.  And yet I can't find any words quoted that allegedly constitute this "pressure."  Dozens of taped meetings over four years and not one single instance of words you can quote to show the "pressure"? 

Don't get me wrong -- I think politics in New York is thoroughly corrupt.  But as I said above, all politics is inherently corrupt.  It's the nature of the game.  That doesn't make it criminal.

And might I briefly mention Madame Hillary?  Seems that Skelos managed to get his son a consulting gig that paid about $200K over four years, $50K or so a year.  Chelsea Clinton somehow got a $600K per year job at NBC News -- a job that even loyal Clinton supporter New York Magazine called "fake."  Of course, nobody took the trouble to tape every phone conversation that Bill or Hillary may have had with NBC or affiliates over the last several years to see if there was any "pressure."  Oh, and Bill and Hillary have also been paid some $30 million over just the past year or so making "speeches."  The prices run from about $200K to $500K each.  Who pays for these things?  Of course, every "speech" with this kind of price tag is paid for by someone with interests before the U.S. government.  It almost goes without saying, because the U.S. government has its fingers in literally everyone's life today -- hey, that's how you achieve perfect justice and fairness!  But wasn't it all OK because it happened while neither Bill nor Hillary had a job with the U.S. government or was running for any office?  Well, Skelos didn't have any job with Nassau County either.  And wasn't it completely obvious to everybody that Hillary was going to run for President and would be the leading contender to win?  Can you really give the prospective candidate $30 million the day before she announces (not even to the campaign -- personally) when the limit is $4800 the next day, and even then only to the campaign?  And I haven't even started on the Foundation, that somehow pays for all the Clintons' expenses and lifestyle.  And by the way, it's tax exempt!

Really, this Skelos guy is just so small time!  Also, of the wrong political party relative to the federal prosecutors of the moment.  Other from that, which is the worse corruption?