A few weeks ago the front page of the London Sunday Times newspaper broke a story about how some investigative reporters posed as lobbyists for the banking industry trying to get banking reform legislation watered down. Three members of the European parliament took the bait, and agreed to be paid a yearly salary of 100,000 Euros (US$143,120) in exchange for their votes. One of those was a former deputy prime minister from Romania, who had the chutzpah to email the reporters “Just to let you know that the amendment desired by you has been tabled in due time.” He then sent them an invoice for €12,000 (US$17,174). Isn’t that tidy?
When I read this, my initial reaction was to shake my head at such blatant corruption in the European parliament and wonder how europeans put up with it. But are we really any better? A quick look turned up a few interesting stories from the US.
Here’s one about Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who insists that his “state is broke” and so has cut government workers’ salaries, saying that they are overpaid, and stripped them of their collective bargaining rights. But Walker somehow found the money to give a 26% raise to one of his employees who oversees environmental and other regulations in the department of commerce, after just two months on the job. What makes this even more curious is that the employee is hardly qualified for the job. He’s a college dropout, and it looks like this is the first real job he has held. Brian Deschane is only 26, but he already has two drunk-driving convictions.
So how did it get this job? It probably helped that Deschane is the son of the head lobbyist for the Wisconsin Builders Association, and one of the largest contributors to Walker’s campaign. So in one fell swoop, the builder’s association gets someone on the inside to oversee regulations that affect them, and that someone even gets paid a salary and a raise. Not only that, but the anti-union law the governor signed also had provisions to convert more than 37 civil service positions into political appointees so the governor can do even more political patronage with taxpayer money.
Here’s another, about how Wachovia Bank laundered tens of billions of dollars for cocaine smugglers, including the same drug smugglers who are killing people in Mexico.
Or how could we ignore how most of the major banks in the US routinely forged mortgage documents, with full cooperation of the government.
Or how about the Candlie’s Foundation, which is supposedly a non-profit whose mission is to prevent teen pregnancy. You may have heard of them because their spokesperson is Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol, who receives a salary of $262,500. The “foundation” also spent $165,000 on advertising. So how much have they actually spent on teen pregnancy prevention? $35,000. Candie’s Foundation is run by an executive for a teenage clothing company, so it is not surprising that they spend 10 times more on promotion and PR than they spend on, you know, actually doing what their non-profit claims to do.
Or how Koch Industries paid off President Bush, to avoid paying record penalties and even jail time for blatant pollution violations, and even got one of their own employees hired as the inspector general of the EPA as an added bonus.
And yet we often look the other way at this kind of corruption.
In fact, this will probably get me into trouble with lots of my readers, but I will claim that there is a very common form of corruption that pretty much all of us (with the exception of poor people) are guilty of, and yet we think nothing of it. Are you indignant yet? Ready to claim that you would never do anything corrupt like bribery or kickbacks?
So, how many of you have ever flown on company business and received “frequent flyer miles” from the airline, car rental company, or hotel? Or how many of you use a credit card that gives you “cash back” on your purchases, and have used those credit cards to pay for things (such as travel) that were reimbursed by the company for whom you work?
Programs like this are a form of kickback — a personal gift to you in exchange for your company’s business. Airlines do it because it works — it brings them business. Not only that, but the IRS looks the other way, so these kickbacks (which should be illegal!) are not even treated as income, and you don’t have to pay taxes on them. What a deal!
When I’ve had discussions with people about “frequent flyer” programs, a common argument I hear is that business travelers are entitled to perks like this. Interestingly, when government officials who accept bribes are caught, many of them feel entitled to these bribes as part of their “compensation”. I’m sure that politicians who accept massive campaign contributions in exchange for their votes feel the same way.
And the second most common excuse? “Everybody does it”. I guess that means that if everyone is corrupt, then it is ok.