Henry J. Stern: The Petri Dish of Politics: Starting with New York

Recent stories about dishonest public officials have caused people to wonder whether any are on the level. We believe that most of them are reasonably honest, but too many are willing, in one way or another, to sell their offices.

Today we turn our attention to Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, who years ago received favorable terms on a mortgage from Countrywide Financial, and whose case was revisited by the Senate Ethics Committee. As a member of the Senate Banking Committee, Dodd was once in a position to be particularly helpful to Countrywide, an over-extended sub prime lender rescued/swallowed by the Bank of America in January 2008.

Now, of course, the Senator denies that the terms he received on his mortgage financing were better than what any other borrower could have negotiated with Countrywide, and, if they were, he knew nothing about it. That story is very difficult for reasonable people to believe. Dodd certainly thought that he was getting something special by being a “Friend of Angelo” Mozillo, the bank’s former CEO. Nor was he treated as an anonymous applicant would have been. Just how favorable the terms he was given were, the bank’s employees would have been very foolish not to have called the Senator’s application to the attention of senior management.

What happened here does not, in our judgment, add up to a crime, unless you hit the Senator for perjury for his untruthful denials of any action or knowledge on his part. That was what Scooter Libby was tried for, and eventually convicted of. His jail sentence was commuted by President Bush before he served a day, which seems understandable when someone has lied to protect you. The intensity of Vice President Cheney’s demand for a full pardon for Libby, denied by Bush on his last day in office, was due to Cheney’s desire to protect his staff for actions they had taken in his interest.

Back to Senator Dodd, whose father, Senator Thomas J. Dodd, was censured by the Senate in 1967 for converting campaign funds to his personal bank account. We cannot imagine that, in the last 42 years, no other Senator has done that, but none has been censured for it. We can understand why Senator Christopher Dodd has for years considered his father’s censure to have been an injustice.

What the younger Dodd did in the Countrywide case was not honorable. One should not engage in financial dealings at all with people whom you regulate, both because of the appearance of impropriety and the strong likelihood that something, after all, is improper.

One might think that this is a matter for the Senate Ethics Committee to consider, but they are not regarded as effective. Each member is a potential defendant, and more than likely to take a tolerant view of the indiscretions of his colleagues. Often the press is the principal instrument through which wrongdoers are identified, exposed to the public, and subjected to the wrath of the voters, if any.

The sinner of the first six months of 2009 is Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who was a potential Presidential candidate. This June, he told his staff that he was going hiking on the Appalachian Trail to clear his mind. In reality, he had flown to Argentina to consort with a mistresses, with whom he was obsessed. He has since begged forgiveness, and is likely to be allowed to serve out his term, because South Carolina politicians believe that the Lieutenant Governor who would succeed him is even more offensive, even though he is not a sexual menace.

The weak-willed Sanford, however, cannot hold a candle to former Senator John Edwards. Democratic candidate for Vice President in 2004 and presidential candidate in 2008. He ran well in the important Iowa primary, which led to Hillary Clinton’s first loss to Senator Obama. Edwards had an affair with someone he hired as a campaign photographer, and then impregnated her, which resulted in the birth of a girl whose parentage he denied (he claimed a staff member was the baby’s father.) The fact that he did all this while his wife was stricken with cancer and caring for two young children simply adds to the story, as does the unproven theory that the reason Mrs. Edwards contracted breast cancer was that she had taken hormone injections so she could become pregnant in her 40’s after the tragic death of her 16-year-old son in an automobile accident.

By his actions, Edwards not only betrayed his wife but also the thousands of people who worked to elect him President. People left their jobs to help him, invested their time and money in his campaign, appealed to their friends on his behalf, and put themselves out considerably to help a man who turned out to be a complete fraud and a hypocrite.

Sooner or later, in this age of the media and the internet, Edward’s salacious acts were bound to come to light. If that had happened after he won the Democratic nomination, his party and his country would have been punished. It is stereotypical to say that his was the conduct of a personal injury trial lawyer, who specialized in coaxing large verdicts from sympathetic juries, but there are many honorable people in that profession.

Somehow, however, one believes that truth was always a stranger to Mr. Edwards, certainly not more than a passing acquaintance. He pretended to be the son of a mill worker, although his father was a manager. When he decided to run in 2008 as a Huey Long populist, although that was not his previous reputation, one could sense a certain artifice in his self-presentation.

But Edwards’ conduct was not criminal, although he could well have committed crimes along the jagged path of self indulgence ($400 haircuts). Before he was exposed, both Senator Obama and Senator Clinton came to him to seek his blessing for their campaigns. He eventually chose Obama, but that was in all likelihood a judgment based on his self-interest. It remains a matter of historical interest how so seriously flawed a person could come relatively close to the Presidency.

There is no space or inclination here to list a series of corrupt, questionable, self-serving or degrading acts by public figures. They seem to be an occupational hazard in this line of work. In my first term as an elected city council member (1974-77), I observed that the rate of indictment of my colleagues was higher than the rate of indictment for teenagers in the South Bronx, which at the time was more violent than it is today.

When one asks what can be done about the errant or corrupt public official, we would first respond that the question is very difficult to answer. Cases of misconduct must be resolved one by one, not en masse. At this time it is Senator Pedro Espada, Jr., the new Democratic majority leader in Albany, and Senator Hiram Monserrate who are the focus of attention for alleged wrongdoing. A criminal trial is expected for Senator Monserrate, who claims he accidentally slashed the face of his girlfriend with a broken glass. The victim required 25 stitches to patch the cut above her eye.

These legal problems do not appear to have impaired the duo’s rise to power. Their peers in the Democratic conference were extremely eager to have their votes, which would increase the salaries, lulus and member items for all Democrats. The pair’s alleged misdeeds faded overnight into irrelevance. The prodigal sons were welcomed home.

Not all horrible behavior is criminal, and not all criminal behavior is necessarily horrible, or if so it is to varying degrees of horror. But when people are elected to safe jobs that they usually enjoy for life, and they raise money around the calendar to keep the jobs, and the money comes from people whose futures and fortunes they affect, relationships arise in which corruption is likely to occur. The New York State Legislature, as are some others, is a Petri dish for fraud. Much of it remains undiscovered. The FBI needs a good informant. Remember, it was Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin who taped his colleague, Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio, who is a good person, although not an honest public official. Such is life.

2 Replies to “Henry J. Stern: The Petri Dish of Politics: Starting with New York”

Leave a Reply