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Capital Hypocrisy Rooted in Money

By Michael Winship
February 23, 2009

Editor’s Note: As the U.S. government grapples with the financial catastrophe unleashed by decades of greed and deregulation, politicians find -- to their embarrassment -- that many longtime pals and backers are leading the list of investment thieves and con artists.

In this guest essay, writer Michael Winship examines a few recent examples of money corrupting politics:

The great movie comic and professional curmudgeon W.C. Fields once said, "You can fool some of the people some of the time - and that's enough to make a decent living."

Watching the news from Washington unfold this week, the truth of the late comedian's words never seemed more right. The antics of the august members of the House and Senate remind us once again that money is the root of all hypocrisy - especially in politics.

Take United States Senator Roland Burris, appointed by former Illinois governor and clown prince Rod Blagojevich to fill the seat vacated by Barack Obama. Testifying before the impeachment committee investigating Blagojevich, Senator Burris claimed he had no conversations with anyone from the governor's clan of cronies prior to his appointment.

Now he says, oops, I just remembered - the governor's brother asked me to raise $10,000. Or was it $15,000? 

Luckily, Senator Burris still has some space in Chicago's Oak Woods Cemetery on that spiffy mausoleum he had built with a list of all his accomplishments. Like some ancient Egyptian pharaoh ordering up the
hieroglyphics for his made-to-order pyramid, the senator has room to have inscribed there one final act of public service. "Resignation" would seem to fit rather neatly.

Then there are Republican congressmen John Mica of Florida and Don Young of Alaska. As the McClatchy News Service reported, both stood with their party - good and true, cool conservative men - voting against President Obama's economic stimulus. So did every other GOP House member. Twice.

But then, eager to ride a gravy train with a popular President at the throttle, each of them had the chutzpah to issue press releases praising aspects of the stimulus package - while never mentioning they'd actually voted "nay."

This was followed by the spectacle of several other Republican House and Senate members who voted against the stimulus going back home during the President's Day recess and touting the money the bill will provide their constituents. 

But the prize of the week - the ever-loving, loving cup - goes to the multitude of Congress members - both Democrats and Republicans – who enjoyed balmy Caribbean breezes and substantial campaign contributions thanks to the largesse of financier Robert Allen Stanford, now accused of bilking investors of some $9 billion and, like W.C. Fields, making a decent living at it.

Stanford prefers being called "Sir Allen," as befits a Texas charlatan. He was knighted by the governor-general of the West Indies island of Antigua, off-shore headquarters for his alleged con game.

He bankrolled "fact-finding" missions to Antigua and other Caribbean ports-of-call for several members of Congress, including Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn and New York Democrat Charlie Rangel, chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

Stanford Financial Group was a main sponsor of last month's Texas state pre-inaugural ball in DC and his political action committee gave $10,000 to help cover the costs of last year's congressional baseball game (the Republicans won, for the eighth year in a row, 11-10).

"Sir Allen" partied with Nancy Pelosi and Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention last summer. And when Tom Delay was still House majority leader, he flew the friendly skies in Stanford's private jet 16 times in three years - including a trip to Houston for Delay's arraignment on money-laundering charges.

Stanford showered millions on political campaigns, much of it from 2001-2002, the very time Congress was debating a bill to curb financial fraud with a computer network linking regulatory data bases.

Two of the biggest recipients were Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida – who at the time was chairing the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, another big beneficiary of Stanford love - and Republican Sen. John McCain. Three key Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee - then Chair Paul Sarbanes, Charles Schumer and Christopher Dodd received checks, too.

The reform bill never got out of the Senate. According to the non-partisan and indispensable Center for Responsive Politics, over the last decade, Robert Allen Stanford spent nearly $5 million lobbying the Senate and House, on top of $2.4 million in campaign contributions to Federal candidates.

Now that he has been tracked down by the FBI and charged with "massive, ongoing fraud," many politicians are rushing to give the money back to charity, including President Obama, whose campaign received $4600.

Altogether, however, Stanford's contributions were a spit in the bucket of what he's alleged to have swindled, and just a tiny slice of the multibillion-dollar pie the lobbying business has become in Washington.

Already, lobbyists are jumping all over President Obama's economic stimulus, so much so the Washington D.C. Examiner newspaper renamed the bill "The Lobbyist Enrichment Act" and reported that, "In the first weeks of this year, about 50 companies, trade associations, municipalities or non-profits retained new lobbyists explicitly to lobby on the stimulus bill."

According to Washington Post associate editor Robert G. Kaiser, the lobby industry "has helped moneyed interests protect their status and privileges, undermined government regulation of business and turned our elected officials into chronic money-chasers."

Kaiser, an intrepid, longtime reporter and native Washingtonian has a new book out titled, So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government. He appeared as a guest on the latest edition of Bill Moyers Journal on public television.

The fix is in, he told my colleague Moyers, eliminating a fair competitive system. We should ask for more transparency, Kaiser suggests. And campaign finance reform would go a long way to making a difference, but he doesn't think it likely anytime soon.

The "everybody does it" syndrome took over in Washington a long time ago and, in general, an indifferent, cynical public seems unmotivated to do anything about it.

"They do not expect Congress to do the right thing," Kaiser said, "They do not expect high ethical standards. On the contrary."

So why should the lobbyists and the government stop their profitable roundelay if we fail to do anything to stop the music and fall for the "everybody does it" meme? Do we deserve what we get?

The way lobbyists, special interests and politicians regard the citizenry brings to mind another W.C. Fields aphorism, the title of one of his movies: "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break."

Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program “Bill Moyers Journal,” which airs Friday night on PBS.  Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at

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