Sunday, October 01, 2006

@ - First steps on path to corruption can seem innocent

NOTE: This column was excerpted from a posting, How Good Politicians Go Bad, which is available in The Cool Justice Report archives.

Column: First steps on path to corruption can seem innocent

For the Norwich Bulletin
Oct. 1, 2006

Editor's note: This column, excerpted from "Payoff: Tales Of Political Corruption in Connecticut and Throughout the USA," is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report,

The FBI recently revealed in the post-9/11 era it is investigating 2,000 cases of public corruption, which have led to more than 1,000 convictions of public officials.

Is public corruption the ultimate seduction or a revelation of some basic human personality flaw?

As a new lawyer, I was offered the opportunity to run for Bridgeport City Council. That was at the invitation of lawyer Richie Pinto, who shared office space with me and my dad.

Richie was a powerful figure in local Democratic politics and an honest man. He was a gregarious figure who loved to be viewed as a kingmaker. Decades later, I would spend more than five days in a federal courtroom cross-examining his son, Paul, the government's star witness in the corruption trial of former Mayor Joe Ganim.

Even at this small-time level, I found the lure of politics to be a heady drug. What amazed me most, however, was the number of people willing to fight sometimes vicious battles to advance the party.

Interestingly, I have found there are essentially two types of politicians who ultimately go sour. The first is the greedy individual. From petty ward healers to national figures, these people see public service as a ticket to the trough of public money. What amazes me is their sense of invulnerability. You can't line your pockets at public expense without casting a wide net and letting it be known you are for sale.

The second class of offender is the altruist who enters public service intending to serve the public good. Many stay focused and often accomplish much. When this type of politician turns, it is generally the result of some accidents of fate or concerted acts of seduction.

I would wager the good politician who turns bad enjoys long tenure and lopsided political victories.

Of course, there would be no corruption without corrupters, and the seduction is subtle. Millions of dollars in public contracts create a battleground among corporations vying for influence and the inside track to a bid award. Wining and dining politicians is not uncommon.

Look at the new sports venues being built throughout the land and you will find an increase in the number and cost of luxury boxes. At a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars each, these are perks doled out to clients.

So the seduction starts innocently with the acceptance of some minor gifts -- dinner, tickets to a Yankees game, limo rides to New York -- nothing that isn't common in the private sector. Nothing is sought. This is the development of "goodwill."

The politician paid a modest salary is expected to move gracefully among the moneyed icons of business. Temptation begins. Now add to it a corporate attitude influence is necessary in dealing with the public sector.

Take a look at the expenses of companies seeking public contract bids, and among those are the costs of "consultants" and lobbyists. Lobbyists have been receiving increased attention by law enforcement. Legislative bodies regulate lobbying.

"Consultants" are different. These are generally people of influence who are paid big money to help quietly acquire face time or exposure with the public decision-makers. Consultancy agreements often include large "success fees," usually a percentage of the contract.

A typical scenario is hiring a "consultant" to work the political landscape as an independent contractor. The hiring company insulates itself and can disavow any later wrongful acts. The consultant has inner-circle access ,at least to influential insiders who advise the decision-maker. Small gifts become larger ones. Soon the heretofore honest person is ripe for a bribe.

Bridgeport attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counselfor former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim's corruption trial. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on Court TV. Andy Thibault, author of "Law & Justice In Everyday Life" and a private investigator, is an adjunct lecturer of English and a mentor in the master of fine arts writing program at Western Connecticut State University. Web site: www.andythibault .com Blog: cooljustice.


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