By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING — The recent FBI and State Police search of Sen. Bert Johnson’s office in Lansing and home in Highland Park serves as a reminder that illegal conduct, corruption and scandal don’t carry party labels.
Details of the federal-state investigation of Johnson, D-Highland Park, remain incomplete, but news reports suggest it may relate to questionable staff payroll practices. Evidence in Michigan and elsewhere in the country demonstrates that some politicians — regardless of party affiliation — don’t respect the law, the public or the oath they swore
Think about recent history in the state:
- Republican ex-Rep. Todd Courser of Lapeer, expelled from the House in disgrace last year in an adultery scandal, faces trial in May on a perjury charge.
- Republican ex-Rep. Cindy Gamrat of Plainwell, who resigned in the same scandal, had her perjury and misconduct in office charges dismissed last June.
- Democratic ex-Rep. Brian Banks of Detroit was sentenced in February for filing false financial statements to secure a loan.
- Democratic ex-Sen. Virgil Smith Jr. of Detroit was freed from jail in December after serving a sentence for shooting at his ex-wife’s Mercedes-Benz.
- Republican ex-Rep. Brian Palmer of Romeo pleaded no contest to neglect of duty for his role in a Ponzi scheme, the same year that ex-Democratic Supreme Court Justice Diane Hathaway pleaded guilty to federal bank fraud.
- U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, faces trial later this year on corruption and bribery charges. On March 20, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to throw out the case.
- Ex-U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, was indicted March 28 on fraud, money laundering and conspiracy charges for allegedly stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars intended for charity, using some of the funds to illegally underwrite his campaigns.
- Ex-U.S Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pennsylvania, is serving a 10-year prison term for money laundering, racketeering and fraud, including misusing charitable donations and government funds for personal and campaign purposes.
- Ex-U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Florida, faces a late April trial on conspiracy, tax, wire fraud and mail fraud charges, including using an unregistered charity to raise money for a personal slush fund.
As Wall Street stock prospectuses remind us, past performance is no guarantee of future results, and scandals and convictions aren’t enough to dissuade some politicians of both major parties from seeking office.
For example, the New York Post recently reported that ex-U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm, R-New York, is considering a run for Congress or city office now that he’s finished his prison sentence for federal tax fraud.
Voters can be forgiving.
That’s what happened after Republican Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina quit in a 2011 sex scandal but was elected a couple of years later to Congress, where he now serves on the Government Oversight and Reform Committee.
In 2013, Flint voters chose Democrat Wantwaz Davis for a city council spot despite the 19 years he’d spent in prison for a murder conviction.
A disgraced Sanford and a disgraced Davis fared better at the polls than disgraced Courser and disgraced Gamrat, both of whom bombed out when they ran to regain their old seats in a special election. Despite their extramarital affair that drew embarrassing international media attention to Michigan, the fact that some constituents wanted to return the wayward pair to Lansing reflects a curious tolerance among the citizenry for corruption and scandal.
National Public Radio recently interviewed Penn State University political scientist Susan Welch for a story about how supporters of President Donald Trump don’t appear upset by allegations of conflict of interest and other ethical breaches.
Welch told NPR that some types of corruption, including sex scandals, draw extensive press coverage that can damage politicians, but voters often forgive politicos for other types of wrongdoing, particularly conflicts of interest and campaign finance transgressions.
Welch said voters knew during the presidential campaign that Trump had extensive business holdings and seemed willing to accept any related problems.
“They probably knew he wasn’t going to do much about it, given his resistance to revealing his income tax return, and they just didn’t care that much because they thought he would bring about the kind of change they wanted,” she told NPR.
A study by political scientists David Redlawsk of the University of Iowa and James McCann of Purdue University found that political corruption is often in the eye of the beholder. Based on an exit poll they conducted in six U.S. cities during the 2000 presidential election, it concluded that the phrase “political corruption” is “fundamentally ambiguous” and “may mean different things to different citizens,” producing “markedly different political overtones.”
Among the differences in approach: whether “self-interested actions and blatant favoritism” are viewed as “just politics” and, therefore, shouldn’t be condemned “if no laws are broken.”
Conceptions of corruption vary by locality, voter demographics, location, political traditions and political ideology, according to Redlawsk and McCann’s study, and that carries “clear implications for voting behavior” such as support for third parties.
This commentary is adapted from a column in Domemagzine.com