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Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman

Crossing the Line: Where Party Doesn’t Matter

March 31, 2017

When the FBI and State Police recently searched the home and office of Senator Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park, the raids reminded us that crime, corruption and scandal don’t wear party labels.  Or that some politicians—regardless of the party label they wear—don’t respect the law, the public or the oath they swore.

Think about recent history here in Michigan:

Democratic ex-Representative Brian Banks of Detroit, was sentenced in February for filing false financial statements to secure a loan.

Democratic ex-Senator Virgil Smith, Jr. of Detroit, was released from jail last December after serving a sentence for shooting at his ex-wife’s Mercedes-Benz.

Republican ex-Representative Todd Courser of Lapeer, whom the House expelled in disgrace last year in an adultery scandal, faces trial in May on a perjury charge. 

Republican ex-Representative Cindy Gamrat of Plainwell, who resigned in the same scandal, had her perjury and misconduct in office charges dismissed last June.

Republican ex-Representative Brian Palmer of Romeo pleaded no contest to neglect of duty for his role in a Ponzi scheme, the same year ex-Democratic Supreme Court Justice Diane Hathaway pleaded guilty to federal bank fraud.

Let’s peek beyond the state’s border to see:

Incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Bob Menendez of 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.

Republican ex-U.S. Representative Steve Stockman of Texas was charged in mid-March with violating federal election law, including conspiring with former aides to channel money meant for a charity to his campaign, and making false statements to the Federal Election Commission. 

Democratic ex-U.S Representative Chaka Fattah is serving a 10-year prison term for racketeering, money laundering and fraud, including misusing government grants and charitable contributions for personal and campaign purposes.

Democratic ex-U.S. Representative Corrine Brown of Florida is slated for a late April trial on conspiracy, tax, mail fraud and wire fraud charges, including using an unregistered charity to raise money for a personal slush fund.

What about redemption? Of course, as Wall Street stock prospectuses remind us, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

The New York Post recently reported that Republican ex-U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm is weighing a run for Congress or Staten Island borough (county) president now that he’s completed his prison sentence for federal tax fraud.

And the public can be forgiving. Look what happened after Republican Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina resigned in disgrace in a 2011 sex scandal.  A couple of years later, his constituents elected him to Congress where he sits—incongruously—on the Government Oversight and Reform Committee.

In 2013, Flint voters chose Democratic candidate Wantwaz Davis for a city council seat 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 for their old seats in a special election. Despite their affair that drew uncomfortable international media attention to Michigan, the fact that some constituents inexplicably voted to return the wayward pair to Lansing reflects a curious tolerance among the citizenry for corruption and scandal.

NPR recently interviewed Penn State University political scientist Susan Welch for a story about how supporters of President Donald Trump don’t seem upset by allegations against him of conflict of interest and other ethical breaches. Welch told reporter Jim Zarrolli 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 appeared 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.

In fact, research by political scientists David Redlawsk of the University of Iowa and James McCann of Purdue 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, they concluded that the term “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, thus, shouldn’t be condemned “as long as 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.

Eric Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service and the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.

March 30, 2017 · Filed under Freedman



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