What Is The Biggest Corruption In Politics Today?

Over the past few years, this blog has discussed the prosecutions of numerous prominent politicians accused of corruption.  Those have included Joe Bruno (former Majority Leader of New York State Senate), Sheldon Silver (former Speaker of New York State Assembly), Bob McDonnell (former Governor of Virginia), Dean Skelos (another former Majority Leader of New York State Senate), and Bob Menendez (current Senator from New Jersey).  In each case the question was, how can you tell when one of them has crossed the line from normal constituent service for friends and donors and into corruption?  You will note that the first four of these individuals were all convicted at trial, but all four then had their convictions reversed or vacated by appellate courts.  Bruno was actually acquitted on re-trial.  The original Menendez trial is ongoing at the present time.

One of the remarkable things about each of these cases has been that the amounts of money involved in the alleged corruption have not been particularly large.  The linchpin of the Bruno case was alleged forgiveness of an $80,000 debt for an (allegedly worthless) racehorse.  That case also involved a few hundred thousand dollars in allegedly mischaracterized "consulting fees."  The McDonnell case involved about $175,000 in personal gifts, allegedly as quid pro quo for setting up meetings with officials of the Virginia state university system.  Skelos had allegedly leaned on supporters to provide "no-show" employment to his son, in total amount of about $220,000.  With Menendez, we get up to about $600,000 in contributions to super-PACs supporting his campaign, plus some private jet travel and stays at resorts.  Silver's case is the only one of the bunch that breaks the million dollar barrier, with about $4-5 million of "referral" fees for asbestos injury cases going to the former Speaker.

Of course, with all of these convictions reversed or vacated, it's not clear that any of these people committed actual crimes.  You could get the impression that all of these prosecutions are just to divert your attention away from the really big corruption that is occurring right under everybody's noses and never prosecuted.  Surely, if the whole game of politics is "inherently corrupt" as the Manhattan Contrarian contends, and with the federal and state governments passing out trillions of dollars per year to favored interests, there must be far bigger corruptions than these paltry hundreds of thousands of dollars (or maybe single-digit millions)!  

What is your nomination for a really significant corruption?  Note that there is no requirement for an actual prosecution, or even an investigation, for a nominee to be considered.  Indeed, for a given corruption to get really, really big, it is almost a given that either the perpetrators will be too big for the prosecutors to take them on, or that the whole scheme must have received a legal blessing of some kind.

I know what you're thinking -- the Clinton Foundation!  Now we're on the scale at least an order of magnitude or so bigger than any of the instances mentioned above.  That Foundation raised some $2 billion over the period 2001 - 2016, during most of which time Hillary was either a sitting U.S. Senator, and/or known to be about to run for President, and/or Secretary of State, and/or known to be about to run for President again.  Even if you assume that all of the allegedly "charitable" work of the Foundation was legitimate (an assumption that has been challenged in many quarters), that still leaves many tens of millions of dollars that went to cover the Clintons' travel and hotel expenses, and expenses for assistants and a full staff of campaign-in-waiting, all somehow declared exempt from the strictures that apply to gifts to government officials and outside of the limits on campaign contributions.  And the donations were tax deductible!  It's obvious that many to most of the contributors had some kinds of interests before the U.S. government for which they were hoping for or expecting favorable treatment.  You can't tell what all the interests are from reviewing bare lists of contributors, but some of the connections have been widely reported.  For example, we have Canadian mining magnate Frank Giustra, who had purchased a bunch of uranium assets and wanted to sell them to the Russians, which he did in a series of transactions from 2009 - 13 (basically Hillary's tenure as Secretary of State).  Giustra donated over $60 million to the Clinton Foundation, significant portions of it during Hillary's tenure at State.  Or there's the country of Qatar, which seems to have made a fairly regular $1 million annual donation, including while Hillary was Secretary of State.  There are plenty of other examples.

That is a very excellent example of a very large unprosecuted corruption.  But I have an even bigger and better one:  the forced contributions by public employees to their unions that are then used for the political and electoral support of the Democratic Party.  This particular corruption takes place under what I called above a "legal blessing," in this case a Supreme Court decision from 1977 called Abood, where the Supremes upheld forced deduction from public employee salaries of moneys that are then used for political advocacy of various sorts, almost always on behalf of Democrats and/or issues supported by Democrats.

A recent amicus brief filed in the Supreme Court by the Competitive Enterprise Institute details some of the extent of the use of forced contributions for political advocacy by one public employee union, AFSCME.  Matters for which forced dues were used included:  advocacy for the Hillary Clinton campaign, against right-to-work legislation, for gun control, for higher public infrastructure spending, for higher public spending on education, for paid family and sick leave, against private contracting of municipal services, for a higher minimum wage, for gun control, for D.C. statehood, and on and on.

What is the total annual value of the legally enforced annual contributions, all going to one side of the political divide?  I can't find a recent and definitive analysis.  But this analysis from the Wall Street Journal from 2012 (may be behind pay wall) puts the total of union cash plus in-kind political contributions in the range of $600 million to $800 million per year.  That includes both public and private sector unions.  Since the public sector unions are about half of the total membership, that would put the public sector piece at around $300 million to $400 million per year.  It makes the Clinton Foundation look small time.  And it has undoubtedly gone up since 2012.

You may know that the Supreme Court just accepted cert in a case called Janus that promises to revisit the rule of Abood.   The betting is that Abood is highly likely to be overruled.  However, here's the incredible piece:  the four "liberal" justices (Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan, Sotomayor) are virtually assured to vote to keep Abood in place.  In a case (Friedrichs) raising the same issue that reached the Supreme Court earlier this year, after the death of Justice Scalia, the result was a four-to-four affirmance of the Ninth Circuit, with the four "liberals" all unable to recognize that this was an extreme example of corruption.  For them, momentary partisan advantage for the Democratic Party appears to be more important than the integrity of our democracy.