Secret Cash: The Worst Political Scandal of All
By Michael Winship
Sometimes I feel like Gus, the father in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" -- you know, the guy who thinks you can cure all maladies with a spritz of Windex and declares, "Give me a word, any word, and I show you that the root of that word is Greek."
Only in my case, it's give me a scandal, any scandal, and I'll show you how the corrosive influence of money on politics is at its root and makes what's bad even worse (okay, maybe not in the case of Anthony Weiner -- yet). It's not an especially effective party trick, I know, unless you're at a really dreary policy wonk picnic, but you work with what you've got.
John Edwards' illegitimate child? The legal case being built against the freshly indicted, former presidential candidate isn't about paternity or custody or any of that kind of stuff, but revolves around felony campaign finance charges; whether or not two wealthy backers -- his now deceased fundraising chair Frederick Baron and 100-year-old heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon -- provided hundreds of thousands in contributions that in reality paid for the hiding of Edwards' mistress, Rielle Hunter, and their baby.
Newt Gingrich and his wife Callista's big fat, revolving, no interest credit account at Tiffany's? It might be tin-eared and wrong for someone who purports to be a fiscal conservative and a man of the people to throw around big bucks for expensive bling, but that ain't necessarily the scandal. Look a little deeper. On May 24, Jeff Stein of The Washington Post blog "Spy Talk" reported, "At the same time Tiffany & Co. was extending Callista (Bisek) Gingrich a virtual interest-free loan of tens of thousands of dollars, the diamond and silverware firm was spending big bucks to influence mining policy in Congress and in agencies over which the House Agriculture Committee -- where she worked -- had jurisdiction, official records show."
Until 2006, Ms. Gingrich was chief clerk at the committee. During the years between 2005 and 2009, Tiffany's annual lobbying costs shot up from around $100,000 to $360,000, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
The jewelry giant strongly denies any connection: "We had no reason to lobby the Agriculture Committee and we did not... Our focus has been on the Natural Resources Committee." The company also said it had never spoken with Newt or Callista Gingrich about federal mining policy.
But hang on, there's more. Tim Carney of The Washington Examiner reports, "Christy Evans, formerly a top staffer to then-whip Newt Gingrich, is a registered lobbyist for Tiffany's, the high-end jeweler where Gingrich and his wife enjoy an extraordinary line of credit. Evans, former floor assistant to Gingrich and now a lobbyist at the legendary K Street firm Cassidy & Associates, has represented Tiffany's on mining issues since 2000, according to lobbying filings."
The revolving door between government and corporate interests, revolving credit... the saga of Newt "Holly Golightly" Gingrich spins on. The whole affair is reminiscent of the preferential loan treatment now-collapsed subprime mortgage giant Countrywide Financial Corporation reportedly gave a few years ago to Fannie Mae CEO Jim Johnson (he resigned as a result), North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad (chair of the Senate Budget Committee), former Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd (who served as chair of the Senate Banking Committee), and former cabinet secretaries Alphonso Jackson and Donna Shalala.
Yet all this greed and venality pales against the dark heart of the worst political scandal of all, the continuing nightmare caused by Citizens United and other court decisions that have unleashed a monster of unlimited and frequently anonymous private and corporate campaign cash against a nearly defenseless citizenry.
The recent disclosure that the conservative, "grass roots" advocacy organization American Action Network received first year revenues of $2.75 million from fewer than a dozen unnamed, wealthy donors (and 82% of the money from only three of them) led Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethic in Washington, to cite AAN as just one example of how "very few people are having a disproportionate impact on our country's elections."
(The group, affiliated with Karl Rove's American Crossroads political action committee, raised another $24 million in the four months before the 2010 midterms, funding attack ads against Democratic Senate candidates in Wisconsin, Florida, Washington State and Florida described by progressive watchdog Media Matters as "bogus," "deceptive" and "stripped of the facts.")
This revelation follows superb investigative reporting by a Bloomberg News team last month headlined "Secret Donors Multiply in U.S. Election Spending." They found that outside, or non-party organizations, including "trade groups, unions and non-profits started by political operatives that raise and spend money for advertising" spent $305 million on the 2010 elections, four times more than similar groups spent four years ago. They plan to raise even more money for the 2012 campaign. Contrary to law, five of those groups have failed to report to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) more than $4 million spent on attack ads in last year's races.
"The organizations face little scrutiny from the FEC, where split votes between Republican and Democratic commissioners have stymied enforcement in case after case for almost three years," Bloomberg reported. "As a result, voters may find themselves choosing the next U.S. president knowing less about those trying to shape their views of the candidates than they have since secret money helped finance the Watergate burglary and re-elect President Richard Nixon in 1972."
The journalists quoted Donald Simon, a director of pro-disclosure organization Democracy 21: "The amounts of corporate money involved in Watergate will look quaint by the standards of secret corporate funding that will take place in 2012."
Republicans and many Democrats oppose all new attempts at campaign finance reform, including a proposed White House executive order requiring corporations seeking government contracts to reveal their political contributions. On May 26, a federal district court in Alexandria, Virginia, ruled that a long-standing ban on corporate contributions to federal candidates is unconstitutional. Unless the composition of the Supreme Court shifts in a new direction, a constitutional amendment that reverses Citizens United and other federal rulings may be our only prayer, the solitary hope we have to prevent the total usurpation of representative government by big businesses with bottomless pockets.
The Greeks had a word for it -- "oligarchy" -- political clout based on economic dominance. It is, in the words of economist Simon Johnson, "an antithesis to democracy... a small group with a lot of wealth and a lot of power. They pull the strings. They have the influence. They call the shots."
No accountability, no scruples, no shame. It's the biggest scandal of all: a republic struck down by a possibly fatal malady that even Gus the Greek's magic bottle of Windex can't cure.
Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos and president of the Writers Guild of America, East, is the former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.