Op-Ed by BRAD O’DONNELL
Bribery of public officials is completely legal – as long as you do it right.
That’s the biggest irony of the sweeping corruption charges centered in Macomb County. Former Clinton Township Trustee Dean Reynolds is facing 18 felony counts related to alleged bribes he received from Chuck Rizzo. Rizzo was trying to secure contracts for his company, Rizzo Environmental Services.
And Former Chesterfield Township Supervisor Michael Lovelock also accepted bribes from a company in exchange for preferential treatment, according to WXYZ Detroit.
Prosecutors are requesting that Clifford Freitas, a former Macomb Township Trustee, spend 20 months in prison for corruption-related charges, according to The Detroit News. The News reports that federal prosecutors are likely to ensnare even more public officials across metro Detroit.
Why didn’t the politicians just have these companies donate the money to their political campaigns? For these local political offices, candidates can receive contributions of up to $1,000. However, independent PACs, or Political Action Committees, can receive contributions of up to $10,000 for township-level local races.
These companies and their owners, chiefly Rizzo, handed Reynolds, Lovelock, and Freitas fistfuls of cash as if this were a mobster movie.
But if Rizzo had simply cut a check to their political campaigns, and donated to a PAC that was friendly to them, it would all be above-board and legal. Of course, the quid pro quo aspect is still illegal. No public figure is permitted to exchange their vote or influence for financial gain. But if the money was given as a campaign contribution, then they would have plausible deniability – the corruption could be chalked up to “Hey, Mr. Rizzo agrees with my political positions; what can you do?”
The legal aspects of campaign contributions are more complicated, but the point stands: corruption is absolutely legal, as long as you do it a certain way.
This is true in all levels of government. In 2001, then-Senator Hillary Clinton was adamantly opposed to a bankruptcy reform bill that would make it harder for middle class families to renegotiate their debts. After receiving $140,000 from banking industry executives, she changed her tune and voted in favor of the bill, according to The Washington Post. Her critics assert the contributions influenced her vote. For Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration in 2017, he raised nearly $11 million from oil, gas and coal interests, according to The Center for Public Integrity.
Once in office, President Trump nominated Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be his Secretary of State, a shocking move that his critics say was influenced by the industry money. For both Clinton and Trump, there has been no federal probe, no investigations, no FBI intervention relating to bribery.
How could there be? Accepting bribes is legal, as long as its for a political campaign.
To be fair, politicians can’t spend their campaign contributions on just anything. If the expense isn’t campaign-related, they can be fined and in rare cases, jailed. However, the definition of what constitutes inappropriate usages of funds is very much up to interpretation, and things like food or transportation are often not considered inappropriate. How much money could you save if someone was paying for your food and gas?
If this system of legal bribery has you angry, you aren’t alone. According to a poll from The Washington Post, Americans cite “money in politics” as the number one cause of dysfunction in the political system, with 91% saying money in politics is to blame either “a lot” or “some.” The second biggest cause? “Wealthy political donors.” Turns out most people don’t have tens of thousands of dollars with which they can buy politicians.
This doesn’t let Freitas, Lovelock or Reynolds off the hook. What they did is an unconscionable violation of the public trust. We may not agree with everything our elected officials do, but we should at least be able to count on them to not take under-the-table cash bribes from government contractors. Federal prosecutors ought to make an example of them, and weed out any other corrupt government officials.
At the same time, let’s take this opportunity to shine light not just on the illegal bribes our elected representatives take, but also on the legal ones.