Eth­i­cally chal­lenged

Gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion takes a psy­chic toll on the pub­lic, and it de­bases us all.

Houston Chronicle - - FROM THE COVER -

Keep­ing up with the news can feel like a full-time job these days, and one of the con­se­quences is that sto­ries about gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion have lost their st­ing. There are sim­ply too many alarm­ing things go­ing on for any one piece of wrong­do­ing or petty theft to sink in.

There’s news that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s per­sonal lawyer, Michael Cohen, set up what ap­pears to be a pay-forac­cess shell com­pany called Es­sen­tial Con­sul­tants LLC, which was paid hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars by ma­jor Amer­i­can com­pa­nies to do what seems to be very lit­tle.

But that’s just the lat­est. Among many other cases, there’s the fact that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion nom­i­nated Don­ald Trump Jr.’s wed­ding plan­ner to run the Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment in New York and New Jer­sey, a po­si­tion ripe for graft. (Ben Car­son, who runs the depart­ment in Wash­ing­ton, re­cently spent $165,000 to re­dec­o­rate HUD head­quar­ters.) Trump Jr. re­cently went to In­dia on a semiof­fi­cial visit, where ad­ver­tise­ments touted the op­por­tu­nity to meet with the pres­i­dent’s son for $38,000 a pop.

In April, the Cen­ter for In­ves­tiga­tive Re­port­ing made pub­lic a saga in which many mil­lions of dol­lars em­bez­zled by the cor­rupt Malaysian gov­ern­ment were re­peat­edly in­vested in prop­er­ties owned by Trump’s friends and fam­ily, in­clud­ing son-and-law Jared Kush­ner. It isn’t clear whether they were aware of the source or if there is an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of those spe­cific in­vest­ments. In 2016, the Jus­tice Depart­ment launched a bid to pros­e­cute some of the Malaysians re­spon­si­ble, and af­ter he was elected Trump was lob­bied by their gov­ern­ment to end its in­ves­ti­ga­tion — partly, by spend­ing money at Trump’s D.C. ho­tel.

The Malaysians are among the peo­ple, gov­ern­ments and com­pa­nies that have poured money into or done fa­vors for the Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion since Trump has been elected. The Amer­i­can peo­ple could feel a lit­tle bet­ter about that if Trump had done as he promised and put his com­pany in a blind trust. He has not.

Then there’s Scott Pruitt, who has used his perch run­ning the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency to sight­see in Rome on the pub­lic dime, while liv­ing for next to noth­ing in a D.C. condo owned by a lob­by­ist seek­ing to in­flu­ence his agency.

It’s all very sor­did, and the sheer ac­cu­mu­la­tion of it all, along with the like­li­hood that few of these peo­ple will ul­ti­mately be truly held to ac­count, takes a psy­chic toll on the Amer­i­can pub­lic. It de­bases us all. Pruitt and Kush­ner and Trump and Car­son are teach­ing us what to ex­pect.

Wash­ing­ton has al­ways been a hot pot of cor­rup­tion and ma­lign in­flu­ences. But the na­ture of that cor­rup­tion has changed over time. Within liv­ing mem­ory, it was rel­a­tively nor­mal for politi­cians to re­ceive brief­cases full of il­licit campaign donations. That kind of self-deal­ing went into par­tial de­cline af­ter Water­gate. Politi­cians got cleaner, and spe­cial in­ter­ests learned to fun­nel their in­flu­ence-buy­ing through le­gal channels.

It’s not just Wash­ing­ton. The Texas Leg­is­la­ture is filled with peo­ple who trade power for money, as it has al­ways been. Many, such as At­tor­ney Gen­eral Ken Pax­ton, have served un­usual le­gal clients or who have sus­pi­cious real es­tate deals in their his­tory. Then there’s the story of Chris Oliver, who ac­cepted bribes of some $225,000 while serv­ing as a Houston Com­mu­nity Col­lege trustee. The cor­rupt­ing power of money is ev­ery­where in pol­i­tics; it tran­scends party, re­gion and creed.

What’s new about the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is that they’re do­ing what they do openly and with­out shame. It’s an es­ca­la­tion, some­thing from the Gilded Age, an­other pe­riod where eco­nomic in­equal­ity was high, and men with few prin­ci­ples ruled the day.

The gross ex­cesses of that time birthed a rum­bling po­lit­i­cal move­ment that sought to take money out of pol­i­tics and re­turn power to the peo­ple. Part of that took the form of elect­ing new politi­cians, but it also sought to change the struc­ture of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, by en­act­ing new con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments and chang­ing the way peo­ple thought about their re­la­tion­ship to the state.

We’re not there yet, but there’s room to hope for some­thing like this sort of re­form. The un­palat­able al­ter­na­tive is that we learn to ac­cept the grime, and the United States be­comes some­thing cheaper than it was.

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