HOYT PURVIS: The root of corruption

In politics, money usually at core of troubles

Posted: August 29, 2018 at 1 a.m.

Long ago, when I was an undergraduate student, one of my professors, in a class on ethics, opened one day's class in a way I have never forgotten.

A tall, rail-thin, older man, the professor stood silently behind a podium until all was quiet in the classroom. Then he startled us all by shouting loudly, "Money ..." That was followed by a long pause, then he intoned "is the root of all evil." He then reached into a small pouch and pulled out some coins, which he hurled across the classroom. As they ricocheted around the room, to say that he had our attention is a serious understatement.

And I will confess that in my teaching days I occasionally repeated that memorable vignette, if not quite as dramatically.

Recent events involving corruption bring to mind that long-ago exclamation from the professor.

The most apparent examples are the legal tangles involving individuals closely tied to President Trump. Last week, decisions in two different courts cast a shadow over the president. His personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to a series of charges related to hush-money payments to two women who said they had sexual relationships with Trump. Known as Trump's "fixer," Cohen admitted in court that Trump directed him to arrange payment of $130,000 to a porn actress and $150,000 to a former Playboy playmate, thus implicating Trump in violating campaign finance laws and quashing stories that could have been damaging to Trump's campaign.

Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign chairman, a sleazy Washington wheeler-dealer, was convicted on 8 of 18 counts of tax and bank fraud and failure to report a foreign bank account. For influence peddling in Washington he collected millions of dollars, working on behalf of dictatorial leaders in such countries as Ukraine, Angola, the Congo and the Philippines.

He faces an upcoming trial in another case involving charges of money laundering, witness tampering and failure to register as a foreign agent. Stay Tuned.

U.S. relations with Turkey have also been in the news and have resulted in reporting on the extremely well-financed lobbying and public relations efforts on behalf of Turkey in Washington, with consulting and lobbying firms paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote Turkey's interests. Remember that Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump's first national security adviser, acknowledged that he and his son had recently done well-compensated consulting work for Turkey. Flynn agreed to plead guilty to lying to the FBI about his talks with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. As part of a deal for leniency, Flynn agreed to cooperate with the special counsel's investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Along with admitting he lied to the FBI, Flynn acknowledged that the Turkish government "provided supervision and direction" over a $530,000 consulting contract.

When it comes to corruption, campaign finance has been a long-standing and troublesome issue. Focusing on the subject is all the more appropriate considering the recent death of Sen. John McCain, who made campaign finance reform one of his major causes. The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, co-sponsored by McCain and Democrat Russ Feingold, offered some hope that exorbitant campaign spending and the dominance of money in politics might be -- at least to some degree -- brought under control.

The ban on "soft money," prohibited large contributions by wealthy individuals and corporations to national political parties but it left donors free to direct funds to outside groups, whose contribution were concealed from public scrutiny. And later, McCain's Republican Party leaders, especially Sen. Mitch McConnell, succeeded in chipping away at restrictions, culminating in the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, eliminating limits on corporate spending on elections. McConnell argues that campaign spending limits are First Amendment violations: money is speech.

There are also individual cases of violation of the public trust by diverting funds from their intended purpose, often resulting in personal benefit. We have the recent example of U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif, charged with illegally using his campaign account for personal expenses, more than $250,000 to finance family trips to Italy and Hawaii, school tuition, movie tickets, etc. A few weeks earlier, Rep. Chris Collins, R-NY, was charged with insider stock trading having saved family and friends $768,000 with insider information.

We also have the wide-ranging scandal in Arkansas involving state General Improvement Funds. Legislators, lobbyists, and others directed funding to pet causes such as Ecclesia College and engaged in other financial manipulation -- and received significant kickbacks. At last count, five former Arkansas legislators and a lobbyist (plus others in Missouri) have been convicted or pleaded guilty to corruption charges.

Corruption is obviously nothing new, but we are in an era when it permeates public affairs. Since the Watergate era, "Follow the money" has become and should remain a mantra for investigating possible political and business shenanigans. Money -- and greed -- are at the root of corruption.

Commentary on 08/29/2018