Kwame Kilpatrick Is Just the Tip of the Corruption Iceberg

Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has been sentenced to serve 28 years in federal prison, after being convicted of 24 counts of public corruption, including racketeering, bribery, extortion and mail fraud. By all accounts, Kilpatrick used his position to steer millions of Detroit citizens’ tax dollars to his friends and family while the city languished in poverty.

Kilpatrick was convicted of, among other things, directing jobs and contracts to friends and family. One thing that’s cool about the market is that no one has to trust a CEO to not be nepotistic. If his friends and family don’t bring in the dollars, he’s gone, no prison required. On the other hand, mayors aren’t responsible for making a profit. So there’s little incentive to hire the best people for the job. Voters have to keep a careful eye on who gets jobs and contracts, and who has time for that? That’s why they get pissed, because no one wants to have to spend time micromanaging their leaders.

It is true that some of Kwame’s convictions were for worse behavior than one can generally expect from a politician, including what appears to be straight-up stealing from a non-profit fund for personal and campaign expenses. But most of the charges were for bribery and “extortion.’ For example, Kilpatrick charged his friend $75,000 in exchange for sending his company contracts. He also held up already-approved contracts for work until the contractor used his friend’s for subcontract work. In this way, Kilpatrick directed tax dollars from the people of Detroit straight to his and his friends’ pockets.

But it’s difficult to see much difference between that “extortion” and the business-as-usual of, for example, the entire Department of Energy loan program. Over and over again, low-interest loans went to companies directly connected with Congresspeople, including to a solar company linked to Nancy Pelosi’s brother-in-law.

It’s painful to eschew our romantic notions of politicians refusing all opportunities to act in their own self-interest. But painful as it may be to come to grips with reality, imprisoning politicians who aren’t sophisticated enough to wrap their self-interest in complicated land deals, access to initial public offerings and other obfuscations for decades won’t solve the fundamental problem.

U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade called Kilpatrick’s 28-year sentence “equal to the longest sentence” for corruption ever handed down to a public official. This is more time than is routinely handed out for rape and murder, which have much higher recidivism rates than public corruption.

Part of the reason for the long sentence may be a 2004 amendment to sentencing guidelines which allowed for longer stretches in prison for public officials caught bribing, extorting and committing fraud. According to the text, the amendment was meant to correct the problem that, “in general, public corruption offenses previously did not receive punishment commensurate with the gravity of the offense.”

Sentencing judge U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds said it was important to her that Kilpatrick’s sentence reflect the seriousness of his crimes, as if fewer decades in prison would mean the state is okay with corruption. People are afraid that public officials are protected by their places in power from the sentences they deserve for abusing that trust.

And that fear is justified. Sort of.

In his book, Throw Them All Out, Peter Schweizer details all the ways politicians effectively sell their legislative influence. In short, businesses offer politicians who support favorable legislation loans with below-market interest rates and/or the opportunity to participate in very lucrative investment opportunities.

Kilpatrick was caught holding up contracts for sewer work to direct them to his friends. But while we’ll never know how exactly how Pelosi’s connected company was chosen for a loan, or how exactly she was compensated, that his behavior is criminal while hers is merely a story on NRO seems more like class warfare than actual justice.

Kwame Kilpatrick is an anomaly only in scope and lack of sophistication. It’s business as usual for companies, industries and special interests to support politicians in exchange for direct payments, subsidies and tax breaks from the government. Totaled up, this kind of crony capitalism costs taxpayers billions of dollars per year. Then there’s the innovation and productivity lost when companies rent seek instead of competing in the marketplace.

Anger at corrupt public officials stems from the difficulty of government oversight. Faith in this system of government requires faith in the people at the helm. But if there’s anything to be gleaned from every scrap of recorded history ever it’s this: A system which requires we trust individual actors to not act in their own self-interest is not a good system.

All that anger is understandable. But in Mahatma Gandhi’s—or somebody’s—immortal words, “Don’t hate the player. Hate the game.”

Here’s an analogy. You see your toddler has a screwdriver in his hand and he’s pointing it at an outlet menacingly. You can either wait for the shock, or take the screwdriver away from the toddler. In case it wasn’t clear, politicians are toddlers, and screwdrivers are regulatory power. Only in real life, it’s usually just the taxpayers who get shocked.

This post originally appeared at Reason.com.

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