Inside the Capitol

Monday, January 16, 2006

1-20 Reforming Government Corruption

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Expect to see significant reform legislation passed by the New Mexico Legislature and by Congress this year.
In the wake of scandal revelations involving public officials, lawmakers are scrambling to salvage what they can of government's already soiled reputation.
In New Mexico, it was Michael Montoya, the former state treasurer, who said, "That's the way business is done in New Mexico" when caught demanding payoffs from the people who invest the state's billions.
In Washington, Jack Abramoff was caught lavishly entertaining members of Congress, their staffs and a high-ranking Interior Department official in return for promises of help for his clients.
Without having to conduct any fancy polls, my barometer for judging public discontent is the number of e-mails I receive berating our government.
One of the more popular e-mails is one that lists some 280 crimes and other transgressions by the 535 members of Congress. Included among them are spousal abuse, fraud, writing bad checks, assault, drug charges, shoplifting, and drunk driving.
No names or dates are given, so we don't know if this covers just the present 109th Congress or if some of the previous 108 might also be included. One clue we have is that this piece has been circulating for quite a few years and few of the numbers change.
The e-mail also talks only about charges and accusations. It never mentions a conviction. Accusations are made against political candidates all the time. It may be surprising the numbers aren't higher.
Amazingly, the same thing is happening in other democracies where the email has been picked up and slightly modified to meet their situations.
Obviously our elected officials aren't all paragons of virtue. Their opponents told us that during their last election campaign. They probably aren't any more virtuous or corrupt than typical Americans.
What may be different is that they have more opportunities to be on the take than the average American. And that is the central concern of the Abramoff investigation. Is Abramoff just a bad apple or is the entire federal lobbying system corrupt?
It may depend on how many people Abramoff fingers and how many names turn up in the large amount of e-mails federal investigators are combing through.
To have been as successful in the lobbying business as he was, Abramoff has made some dumb mistakes. First, he bragged about his accomplishments. That catches a lot of criminals. Second, he put it all in writing. Unlike shredded paper, deleted e-mails do not disappear. Ask any Enron executive.
But Abramoff's dumbest mistake, visible to the entire world, was showing up for his first court appearance in Washington, looking like a crime boss in a blank trench coat and black fedora. Any public official who had hoped the guy might be able, in some way, to protect his coconspirators, had to give up all hope at that point.
This guy has totally lost it. Maybe it was part of his plea deal. "Yes, and we want you to walk into court looking exactly like The Godfather."
The next day he walked into court in Miami wearing a baseball hat embroidered with the emblem of Cascata, one of the world's most lavish golf resorts.
Abramoff could have gotten away with much of his lavish entertaining but he left too many tracks that he was conspiring with members of Congress for certain governmental actions in return for his largesse.
Are other federal lobbyists doing the same thing? The smart ones may be keeping it from us through weak laws and even weaker enforcement. Those laws will be in for a change this year.
In New Mexico, lobbyist reporting is more transparent. After every report, newspapers identify the big spenders, who are small change compared to their federal counterparts.
New Mexico's reform legislation will concentrate on statewide officials below the governor, who can operate autonomously, with very little notice -- as we have seen with the state treasurer.
WED, 1-20-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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