Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Evan Bayh and Political Corruption

Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.
Ronald Reagan

An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought.
Simon Cameron

Corrupt politicians make the other ten percent look bad.
Henry Kissinger

It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.
Mark Twain

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. It is widely recognized and generally accepted that politicians are corrupt. We could debate whether this conventional wisdom is actually true or not, but we'll save that debate for another time. Let's just accept as a given that the perception among the general public is that politicians are corrupt, or, at the very least, are predisposed to becoming corrupt. Given that politics and corruption are inseparable, the next best thing to having honest politicians is full and complete disclosure of all their financial dealings. Whenever Congress attempts to go any further than this in a misguided crusade to stamp out corruption, as it did, for example, with the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform fiasco of 2002, the results are usually catastrophic, and invariably worse off than they already were. It has been said many times: "Sunshine is the best disinfectant." Transparency, which, among other things, requires financial disclosure, is usually the best protection against political corruption.

Hence we have the Ethics in Government Act of 1978. This law, passed in the wake of the Watergate scandal, requires all members of Congress, each and every year, to disclose all of their relevent financial dealings. The hope is that any potential wrong-doing or potential conflicts of interest will thereby be revealed. Failure to comply is a felony act punishable by fines and disiplinary action by an appropriate authority, such as an Ethics Committee. Unfortunately, there have been numerous instances where public officials have failed to comply with the law and have gone unpunished. Because of lax enforcement some members of Congress believe they can violate the law with impunity. Judicial Watch, a nonpartician watchdog group, reports that Bill and Hillary Clinton, Sen Bill Frist, Sen Harry Reid, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have all had problems with their disclosure reports, with no real investigations or punishments have resulted.

The latest member of Congress with financial disclosure problems is Indiana Senator Evan Bayh. On March 1, 2007 Judicial Watch revealed that he failed to disclose his role as a director of the Evan and Susan Bayh Foundation from 2002, the year he was first named a director, until 2005, the most recent year for which this information is available. You may view Evan Bayh's disclosure filings at the Open Secrets web site. USA Today reports that Bayh spokeswoman Meghan Keck said it was "simply an oversight" that he did not disclose this information. Is it an oversight, or a willful violation of the law? Such foundations can be lucrative tax shelters for the very rich. For example, it has been reported that the Clinton Family Foundation enabled Bill and Hillary to write off more than $5 million from their taxable personal income. It also invites possible "sweetheart deals" for those that generously contribute to or otherwise assist in the work of the foundation. The Ethics in Government Act was designed to guard against such corruption. Repeated, flagrant violation of the Ethics inGovernment Act has become the norm in Washington, and now we can add Evan Bayh to the long list of politicians that fail to comply with the law until confronted.

Pelosi and other Democrats made ethics and greater transparency a top priority in the 2006 elections. When the Democratic-controlled Congress convened in January, the House changed its ethics rules but did not specifically address financial disclosure rules. The Senate passed an ethics bill earlier this month that would boost penalties for knowingly filing false financial disclosure statements. Unfortunately, there is rarely any investigation into disclosure violations that could establish whether a report was knowingly falsified. "Despite all the ethics reforms, there's still no enforcement," said Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor and head of the liberal-leaning Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington.

“Federal disclosure laws are in place for a very good reason – to alert the public to any conflicts of interest and potentially corrupt activity. Too many members of Congress repeatedly ignore disclosure laws with impunity. This has got to stop.” wrote Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “The Committee should investigate whether Senator Bayh’s failure to disclose his family foundation is a willful violation of the rules and law governing such disclosure.”

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