Judas betrayed Christ, Brutus betrayed Hamlet, Donald betrayed Marla, George betrayed Martha, Pussy betrayed Tony Soprano, Michael Vick betrayed the National Football League. In all likelihood the first cave couple cheated whenever possible. All organizations – political, religious and corporate - have become increasingly more corrupt as people become smarter, more arrogant, richer, more sophisticated and technologically advanced.
For the purpose of this column I want to try to differentiate between corruption, which in its purest form is often criminal, and crimes, such as assault, rape, theft, arson and murder. Fraud, forgery, embezzlement and drug trafficking, depending on the people involved and the circumstances, are clearly criminal, but because of their white-collar orientation fall more easily into the corrupt category.
Perjury in a federal court or to a congressional committee is a felony, unless you are the President, Vice President, Attorney General or Scooter Libby. Our churches, universities and political institutions preach morality and the significance of ethical conduct. Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Faye, priestly pedophiles, organized labor, politicians on both sides of the aisle, big oil, the pharmaceutical companies and even the American Red Cross make ethical conduct harder to find.
How can the Catholic Church transfer known child molesters from one parish to another? How can the drug producers lobby successfully for repatriation of billions of dollars of offshore profits with minimal tax consequences on the pretense of creating jobs, and then immediately lay off thousands of workers? How can our attorney general not remember meetings with high-level associates on the firing of federal prosecutors, and the expansion of government surveillance? How can the once lithe and lean Barry Bonds, Mark Maguire, Sammy Sosa, Jason Giambi expect anyone to believe they didn’t use steroids? Michael Vick claiming innocence in spite of his suburban home housing fifty-five battle-scarred pit bulls, dog fighting equipment and the graves of the losers is about as credible as O.J. claiming innocence in the face of a “mountain of evidence”.
While Ken Lay died and Rigas and Kozlowski went to jail, anyone who believes corporate boards do their best to protect shareholders needs to look no further than the pay packages for poor performing CEO’s who continue to operate their businesses, and the severance arrangements for those who are finally fired. That Nardelli left Home Depot with $200 million is stunning, that he just signed on to run Chrysler is astounding.
An ordinary citizen offering a cop, a public official, $100 to forget a speeding ticket might land in jail. Offer a U.S. Senator private jet travel, large campaign contributions and a very lucrative lobbying job when his term expires, almost guarantees legislative support for the donor, often totally at odds with the public interest.
In some states “three strikes and you are out,” even if your third felony is stealing a bicycle, applies to the under privileged minorities and those who cannot afford competent representation. The result, 25-years without parole.
While Mike Milliken spent a couple of years in a country club prison, he emerged a billionaire and was recently designated as one of the most influential men of the century. Elvis died with multiple addictions and thirty years after his death earns $50 million a year, twice his peak earnings when alive. While G. Gordon Liddy and Charles Colson did serve some time, the vast majority of the Watergate players, the most corrupt White House in our history, led normal lives and even prospered. Agnew, who took payoffs in the Oval Office resigned, while Mitchell wrote books, and Nixon while he lost his job was pardoned and recreated himself in retirement.
It appears that an NBA official has been manipulating point spreads for the mob. Professional tennis from its inception, with few exceptions, an elitist undertaking for the rich and well born, is now struggling with the taint of gambling influence. Managed or even manipulated intelligence may well have tipped the scales in favor of the Iraqi quagmire which claims the lives of very young American kids everyday. Politicians use taxpayer funds to build building with their names on them. No bid contracts for Halliburton resulted in billions of dollars in overcharges, and while the CEO has moved his office to Dubai, the company continues to enjoy preferential treatment from the Pentagon. One might ask why?
There is clearly a distinction between negligence and corruption, but where celebrities, politicians and bureaucrats are concerned the differences blur. The reaction to the Katrina disaster by both FEMA and the administration in many eyes was criminal. Watching people on CNN die in the Superdome of heat prostration, lack of food, water and sanitation while the President praises “Brownie’s” handling of the crisis is inexplicable. It appears that the Minnesota Department of Transportation knew a decade ago that the condition of the I-35 Bridge was seriously compromised with cracks and faulty bolts, but did nothing to avert the collapse. It is unclear at this time why action was not taken, but clearly people died as a result.
The bigger the persona the bigger the lie and the more creditability the liar generates. Whether Nixon or Clinton, Gonzales or Cheney, Bonds or Vick, Lay or Libby, corruption is so endemic it’s hard not to wonder if the good guys ever win.
Perhaps if being an honest politician, an ethical sports star, a CEO with integrity were newsworthy, we would conclude that corruption was limited to a few bad apples, but I sadly doubt it. As we live in a society where the victor gets the spoils, temptation to cheat is irresistible. At the corrupt are so much less likely to be punished than the criminal and our society rewards risk takers, there will be no shortage of scandals in the new millennium.