When will we insist that ‘honest graft’ be stopped?
It had to happen. A group of black and Hispanic legislators caught up in the web of political corruption in New York has accused law enforcement, presumably the FBI and Justice Department, of singling them out while allowing the white establishment politicians a free pass. The problem for those either already in jail or on their way to jail is that this logic doesn’t work. Remember when you got caught doing something wrong and you got yelled at? Your response was, “Well, he was doing it too.” It didn’t work then and it won’t work now. If you get caught in a bribery scandal or milking your not-for-profit to enrich yourself, you are guilty and it really doesn’t matter if other people are doing the same thing but haven’t been caught. It really is that simple.
There are lots of ways to look at this. In one recent case, a state senator was caught red-handed trying to avoid prosecution by recording others who she knew were breaking the law, also. That led to a case of the jitters in Albany and a black eye for many black and Hispanic legislators who have never done anything wrong. Clearly, that kind of stereotyping is bad news for honest minority legislators.
In William Riordan’s Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, an old ward heeler distinguished between “honest graft” and “dishonest graft.” It may well be that the old white establishment types know full well how to get what they want without crossing criminal lines. That’s honest graft. For example, a legislator may have a law or insurance practice that is used to collect money or favors, even with the restrictive laws that have been passed to put a lid on some of that behavior. Likewise, the legislator’s spouse may be the one receiving the money.
The original language of the law establishing casinos in New York stated that lawmakers could not accept campaign contributions from those trying to get their casinos approved. Curiously, when the law passed, that key provision was removed. Perhaps the legislators understood that once you started forbidding them to take money in specific cases, the path would be clear for future legislation. Talk about a slippery slope! In any case, the provision went away, proving once again that these people have no shame.
But let us accept the proposition that blacks and Hispanics are unfairly being singled out by law enforcement. We have seen instances in the past when the FBI went after political enemies. The most famous of these involved Martin Luther King who, of course, was embarrassed when the FBI recorded instances of marital infidelity. In the long run, that didn’t stop King from being honored as one of the greatest Americans of all time.
Sociologically, it may be that those who are newer to power than the older establishment types didn’t yet understand “honest graft” and the informal rules that can make you wealthy. Maybe they did engage in clearly over-the-line behavior. They will end up in prison. The real question is, when will New Yorkers become angry enough to insist that the “honest graft” or so-called legal bribery will be stopped. That will only happen when people hold their own legislators to tough ethical standards.
Once people in a defined group really believe that the game is loaded against them, the whole system of justice is put in danger. If people think that laws are unfair, they are more unlikely to distrust the authorities and disobey the rules. When their legislators say that the very laws they are there to create are unfair, the situation gets even more dangerous. In the end, there is no excuse for breaking the law but when faced with severe consequences including prison, people are likely to grab at any straw.
Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 7/1/13