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With one local politician heading to prison for extortion and another reeling from an FBI raid on his house, ethics reform is gaining urgency in the Washington area. Kojo examines proposals to tighten local ethics laws and explores the larger question of how money affects lawmakers’ loyalties.
- Andrew A. Green Opinion Editor, The Baltimore Sun
- Tom Lindenfeld President, LSG Strategies
- Jamin Raskin Member, Maryland State Senate (D- Dist. 20 Montgomery County); and Professor of Law, American University's Washington College of Law
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. In the Washington region, you might mistake the evening news for a white-collar crime series. In episode one, the mayor's campaign staff allegedly pays another candidate to bad-mouth the incumbent, then gives him a city job. In episode two, a councilmember allegedly pockets money intended for youth programs, and the FBI raids his house.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd in the season finale, a county executive tells his wife to stuff cash into her underwear as police arrive to arrest him. He pleads guilty to extortion and gets seven years in jail. The recent string of ethical blunders among local officials from the questionable to the criminal is placing new urgency on attempts to update ethics rules in the capital region. Among the goals: limiting the influence of big money, creating greater accountability and devising penalties for violating the public's trust.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut in a system where elected officials make their own rules, it can be tough to reach consensus on what should be legal and how to punish offenders. Joining us in studio to have this conversation is Maryland State Senator Jamin Raskin. He's a Democrat representing Silver Spring and Takoma Park. He's also a law professor at American University's Washington College of Law. Jamin Raskin, good to see you again.
SEN. JAMIN RASKINGood to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Tom Lindenfeld. He's a political consultant. He's worked on D.C. mayoral campaigns, both for Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty. Tom Lindenfeld, thank you for joining us.
MR. TOM LINDENFELDThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAnd joining us by -- joining us from studios at The Baltimore Sun is Andrew Green. He is opinion editor at The Baltimore Sun. Andrew, are you there?
MR. ANDREW A. GREENI'm here, Kojo. Good to be with here.
NNAMDIAndy Green, good to see you. Good to hear you also. Andy, I'll start with you. Former Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson was sentenced yesterday, seven years in prison after pleading guilty to extortion and witnessing and evidence tampering. Last month, Maryland State Senator Ulysses Currie was acquitted on extortion and bribery charges. Give us a brief overview of what happened in those two cases.
GREENJack Johnson's case was probably the worst public corruption case we've seen in Maryland in quite some time. Based on the accounting we've gotten, it seems that he was looking to feather his nest throughout much of his time as Prince George's County executive. He was instituting a real pay-to-play culture there, where if you wanted a county contract, you needed to take care of him on the back end. You know, he was interested in finding employment opportunities for himself after he left office.
GREENAnd, apparently, also large sums of cash, some of which, as you mentioned, got hidden in his wife's underwear when the FBI was coming to raid. And she was flushing a $100,000 check down the toilet as people were banging on the door. It doesn't get a whole lot more blatant than that one. And he was sentenced, as you said, to seven years in jail, which is the longest sentence we've seen in a Maryland political corruption case in a long time, longer even than a state senator from up around here.
GREENTommy Bromwell got -- some years ago, when he was having work done for free on his house in exchange for favors. In the case of Uly Currie, it was not quite so blatant a case. What he was doing was he was working for a grocery store chain, Shoppers Food Warehouse, as a consultant, but he didn't tell anybody about this. He didn't list it on his public financial disclosure forms.
GREENAnd, meanwhile, he was having meetings with state officials on Shoppers' concerns, things like traffic lights or liquor license issues, things like that, trying to influence state regulators and others to make decisions that would benefit the chain. He was doing this, writing letters on his Senate letterhead, arranging meetings through his Senate office, things like that, with the public officials having no idea that he was being paid to do this. They assumed he was just doing it out of constituent service.
GREENHowever, he was acquitted of bribery charges, but he still will have to face some reckoning in the General Assembly when their ethics committee takes a look at this.
NNAMDITom Lindenfeld, in the District of Columbia, federal investigations are underway into the campaigns or actions of the mayor and two council members. Is this unprecedented?
LINDENFELDIt may be unprecedented, but the cases are all very different. So I don't think I would lump them all together. I think the reality is that we don't really have a prosecutorial system for ethics or, quite frankly, much else here in D.C. We rely on the federal government. As a result, there's not much accountability back to the people who live here in D.C. So, you know, the I.G. has been virtually absent throughout. The A.G.'s ability has been stripped through previous Council action.
NNAMDII.G. being the inspector general, A.G. being the attorney general.
LINDENFELDThat's right. And, you know, the Office of Campaign Finance, the Board of Elections and Ethics has, in both cases, not been very able at being able to create a bright line, being able to establish prosecutions in public, be able to set expectations. And as a result, we have a very unclear standard for behavior and perhaps things that are going on that we can clean up. And I'm grateful that Muriel Bowser has both introduced and pushed a bill that will, in many ways, correct some of that and create a prosecutorial system here that we simply didn't have before.
NNAMDIWhy I said unprecedented is because I remember reading you wrote in The Washington Post that at no other time in our city's brief history have so many public officials been under investigation at once...
NNAMDIWhich is why you were asked whether it was unprecedented. Last week, the FBI and the IRS raided the home of D.C. Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. after the city's attorney general accused him of diverting $300,000 in city money for his own personal use. He denied wrongdoing but agreed to pay back the money. What do you think is next after the -- after the FBI and IRS searched his home?
LINDENFELDI think it's time for us to find out what the facts of the case are. We're really -- as a public -- and this is an extension of the lack of real prosecutorial system that, in fact, happens in -- if I lived in Maryland, there would be an attorney general elected by the people of Maryland. There would be a state's attorney in each county. There would be a prosecutorial system from top to bottom that would be reflective of the people's will and responsive back to it.
LINDENFELDHere, we don't have that. So in the case of Councilman Thomas, we simply don't know the facts. He has agreed to pay money back to the government, but we don't know why. We don't know on what basis...
NNAMDIWe only know what the attorney general has told us.
LINDENFELDRight. But that doesn't make it true.
NNAMDIIt's not necessarily transparent.
LINDENFELDIt's not at all. And so in that case, you know, I would say that it would be appropriate for someone, whether it's the councilman or someone else, to tell us.
NNAMDILay bare the facts. Jamin Raskin, the first step in preventing corruption seems to be passing laws. Well, I guess the first stop would be personal honesty. But the first step in terms of the legislative actions seems to be passing laws that spell out what is and what isn't legal. Do ethics laws tend to be proactive or rather reactive?
RASKINThey're definitely reactive in that if you look at the Maryland's laws, for example, we have 70 or 80 pages that tend to respond to what the most recent crisis or scandal is or was, going, you know, all the way back to the 18th century up through Spiro Agnew and so on. We don't really have any shortage of laws or ethical restrictions. What we have a shortage of in Maryland -- and I'm hoping we're going to deal with in the upcoming General Assembly session -- is a failure of public transparency.
RASKINSo, you know, we have meticulous and comprehensive ethics disclosure forms for all members of the General Assembly, but you have to go down to Annapolis, sign into a room, put your name and your address and, I think, email address down before you get to access them. And then you leave them there. I think we've found something like 18 or 20 states are -- now have such information online.
RASKINAnd I think we can put at least the most important material information online, so the voters have access to it 'cause, look, we are a part-time citizen legislature. So we've got teachers, farmers, business people, bankers, and, you know, you name the trade, the profession, it's in the General Assembly. And that's the design of it because we want a citizen legislature. But, on the other hand, it does present enumerable problems and potential conflicts of interests.
RASKINWe don't want to say that farmers can't vote on farm policy. We don't want to say that business people can't vote on business regulation. We don't want to say that all of us who pay taxes can't vote on tax policy. But at what point does it become a conflict of interest? Well, certainly, when it lines your own pocket if you're voting on your own salary or you're voting on an issue that relates to your own specific business interest. And we prohibit people from doing that, and that's against our rules, even if you do disclose it.
RASKINBut in terms of the gray areas, we really depend on public transparency and disclosure for the citizens to keep us honest. And so I think that we need to improve that, and I think we also need to improve what are the available sanctions for people who do violate our conflict of interest rules. For example, we don't have the ability to make somebody pay back money that they've gotten through a conflict of interest situation. I think that we should have a law which provides for disgorgement or restitution to be paid in a conflict of interest difficulty.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number here if you'd like to join this conversation about ethics and money in local politics. How would you describe your reaction to the recent ethics scandals? Are you outraged, angry, disinterested? Why? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there. It seems it would be impossible to anticipate, to codify every possible wrongdoing. At some level, does the public just have to trust its elected officials to do the right thing, Tom Lindenfeld?
LINDENFELDI think we could set some guidelines and make this a lot easier. I think that the things that we were just talking about here that are at play in Maryland are exactly the same here. Our principles that have to be adhered to a greater disclosure, greater ensure prosecution, opening up every aspect of government to the public. The fact that we have a council that exempts itself from the Open Public Meetings Act is not encouraging.
LINDENFELDAnd, ultimately, we have to even the playing field so that it's not rigged for --against people on any basis whatsoever. If we follow those guidelines and institute laws, regulations and rules that guide us with regard to each of those, I think we'd be far better off 'cause right now we don't have those bright lines. We don't know where the distinctions should -- are.
RASKINWell, you know, there is a kind of structure to these waves of political corruption that takes place. They tend to follow financial bubbles, like real estate bubbles or, you know, bubbles in the stock market, where there's lots of money to be made. The politicians who tend to be in the know understand there's lots of money to be made. There's lots of ready money available to them because the special interests want to influence what takes place in government.
RASKINAnd so rather than standing with the 99 percent, so to speak, they decide they're going to cash in with the 1 percent and get their little piece of the pie.
NNAMDIAnd I'm wondering the extent to which our system tends to encourage that. Andy Green, you've been covering politics for a long time. Jamin, you are involved in electoral politics.
NNAMDIIt just seems to me, Andy, that when we have a system where almost invariably the individual who can raise the most money in any campaign tends to be the individual who is either the favorite or who ultimately wins the election and then, for that person to stay in office, that individual has to raise money on an ongoing basis, is it fair to say that we seem to have caused our elected officials to become addicted to raising money?
GREENWell, to some extent, many people believe that the system of campaign finance is sort of legalized, regulated institutional corruption, that, you know, essentially these -- this is not handing people paper envelopes of cash. But it's almost the next best thing. One of my colleagues at The Sun had an excellent story last week about how companies that have business in Maryland, business interest in Maryland, have suddenly become a whole lot more interested in giving money to the Democratic Governors Association since Martin O'Malley became the chairman of it.
GREENYou know, there was one particular instance. There was a controversial bill during last year's general assembly session about whether waste energy incinerators should be considered a tier one renewable resource on par with wind and solar energy. And this was a big deal to incinerator owners because it would make the market for their electricity much more lucrative as the states' renewable energy standards ramp up. So there was a lot of lobbying on both sides. The bill passed the legislature. Gov. O'Malley was debating whether to sign or veto it.
GREENAnd as fate should have it, on the very day that he announced he was going to sign the bill, the owner of an incinerator that's under development in Baltimore donated a six-figure check to the D.G.A. Now, he, of course, insists there's no connection between these two things, and perhaps there isn't. Who knows? But it sure looks bad, and I think that's the kind of thing that engenders a lot of cynicism and mistrust about politics.
NNAMDIJamin Raskin, I'm just wondering for a second. As an elected official who has to go out and raise money, is the need to raise money -- does the need to raise money become, after a while, a desire to raise money? Because one gets the impression that some elected officials can't help themselves. Even if they happen to be in a race in which they are heavily favored, they're still going out and raising a lot of money. Of course, they can give some of it to the party, et cetera, but it just seems to become addictive.
RASKINWell, first, for the record, I voted against the waste incineration plan.
GREENAs well you should have.
RASKINYeah. And I was passionately opposed to that. Well, I think, you know, in fairness to all of my colleagues, it is a kind of addiction. But it's a necessary addiction because it costs money to run for office. Now, I don't accept money from corporations. I never accepted money from corporations and corporate lobbyists when I first got into politics. Of course, they didn't want to give me any anyway, but I've stuck to that. And I think that that has liberated me to be very independent in the general assembly.
RASKINI don't know if there are any other members of the general assembly who refuse to take corporate money. But I would encourage them to do it because it does give you a clear mind when you go to vote on stuff. And, you know, the whole point -- you know, Madison wrote about this -- is that we want politicians thinking about the right thing, which is the public interest and the common good, and not thinking about this specific group that got to them, much less how much money you can raise from this or that interest.
RASKINSo I think we need to, you know, think of ways to break the tie between electoral politics and big money. And, unfortunately, the Supreme Court is taking us in exactly the wrong direction.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, if you have called, stay on stay line. We are taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you think local lawmakers should be able to remove a peer for ethics violations even if there's no crime involved? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about money, ethics in local politics with Tom Lindenfeld. He's a political consultant who has worked on D.C. mayoral campaigns, including those of Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty. You're now working with Jack Evans, councilmember of Ward 2, who was quoted saying yesterday that the broad ethics legislation reform before the city councilors, a matter of concern only to the media and the chattering classes. I hope I'm quoting you correctly, Jack, otherwise, I know I'll hear from you.
NNAMDIMedia. But do you think voters at large are concerned about it?
LINDENFELDI believe so. I believe that the ethical issues that exist in D.C. right now are overshadowing a lot of what we need to be doing and, quite frankly, getting in the way. The things that we need to be doing are fixing the schools and doing something about crime and improving the opportunity for jobs and improving neighborhoods. And we're not allowed to get to that until we get this ethics issue out of the way.
LINDENFELDAnd so the fact that it is impeding our ability to be able to deal with the real problems that we have is why we're all here talking about this and why Muriel Bowser and other people are leading the way to be able to offer some solutions to how to address this.
NNAMDILet's pursue that for a second because you mentioned Muriel Bowser. Yesterday, the D.C. Council gave initial approval to the most sweeping ethics reform since Home Rule began in the 1970s. The proposed law, proposed by Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser, would establish an independent ethics board, tighten reporting of outside income and potential conflicts and cut the amount of money council members can raise to help constituents. Your thoughts on the legislation?
LINDENFELDI think it's a good piece of legislation that will, in fact, make a difference. And that's the difference we need, and we've been waiting for a while. There can be all kinds of people who would suggest alternatives and would like to make this a perfect piece of legislation that would address everything under the sun, but that's not necessarily the reality of how we pass laws and how we get a consensus amongst the council members who will vote on this.
NNAMDIYou've said the District's lack of ability to prosecute ethics violators is a big problem. Why? I guess we took that power away during the time when Peter Nichols was having conflicts with the council.
LINDENFELDWell, that's only one part of it. I think the reality is that we're still a territory, and we don't have our own prosecutorial system.
LINDENFELDRight. And so when the U.S. attorney is handed a -- the possibility of an investigation, which he may or may not then pursue, there is no need for him to have any discussion or be accountable to us who live here in the District of Columbia. And, ultimately, if we don't know what's going on and if the process isn't one that's more open than it is now, it engenders both a sense that perhaps people can get away with more, and it's -- it leaves the public and us, as voters, thoroughly confused and should push it...
NNAMDIJamin Raskin is a long-time advocate for voting rights for the District of Columbia. I'm almost afraid to ask you the same question that I just -- but -- to Tom Lindenfeld the fact that we are not allowed to prosecute our own crimes.
RASKINI mean, the denial of the right of the people in D.C. to have their own judges and their own prosecutors is really an important interference with the sovereignty of the people. And that's another thing that goes back to the Founders. You know, they felt it was a crime that Great Britain controlled criminal prosecution and criminal law enforcement and the judiciary for people who lived in the colonies.
RASKINAnd so I think that, you know, the struggle against political corruption -- against political and judicial corruption is also a struggle for the right of people to have their own prosecutors and their own judges. And also, you know, it has a lot more credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of the public when it does come locally. You don't get the kind of, you know, attack that, well, this is really the U.S. attorney and the federal government attacking our people because people do want clean government, and they want to be able to do it themselves.
NNAMDIAndy Green, the District's new plan would establish a three-member ethics board, something many jurisdictions have, but those boards often meet in private. What does that mean for the public's ability to hold officials accountable?
GREENWell, it's typically very difficult to know, in Maryland anyway, what the ethics boards of various local and state government agencies are doing because, as you say, their proceedings are held in secret. You generally only find out that they have taken action on the case after the fact if they have chosen to sanction someone. If they have looked at something and not chosen to sanction them, you have no idea that it ever even happened most cases.
GREENAnd, for that matter, you have no idea what the discussion was, what kind of evidence was brought forward, why anyone decided what they did. You know, for something that's supposed to be fundamentally of the public interest, it's really done behind closed doors in a way such as the public can have no real knowledge or great confidence in what's going on. The one thing that is nice about the way the legislature handles things is there is a bit more of a public process, and we'll see that to some extent going forward with the Currie case.
NNAMDII was about to say because Jamin Raskin serves on the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics so you cannot comment on the Currie case because you are involved and that you have already talked about making disclosure forms more easily accessible to the public. But are you satisfied with the transparency of whatever will take place in the deliberations on the -- in the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics?
RASKINWell, what ever we do in a particular case gets reported to the full senate or the House of Delegates. If it's a complaint relating to a delegate, the joint committee refers it to the House. If it relates to Senate -- a senator, then it's referred to the Senate. And all of that will be produced as part of a report, and there will be public discussion and transparency to whatever takes place.
RASKINI mean, there is a question, on the other side, of fairness to the elected official because, you know, I've sat on this committee for five years now, and I can tell you, at most, there are one or two serious complaints a year. But there are dozens of complaints, and lot of it is just frivolous stuff that, you know, I ran against so and so, and they said really mean things about me who are, you know, that they characterized me as being too liberal or too conservative, and I really disagree with that. And I want you to, you know, reprimand them for...
RASKINYeah. So we don't drag people's names to the public for any kind of, you know, complaint that anybody generates. However, for the serious stuff, it is all public, and we try to balance, you know, the interest of the public in seeing what's going on with fairness to the legislators. But, you know, certainly where there are serious charges to be brought, the public is going to know what's happening. But we're much more interested in making sure that we don't get into these situations, and I think the way to do that is through maximum public transparency.
RASKINAnd that's not going to make every elected official happy to have all kinds of private financial information up online, but I think that is one of the burdens of holding public office. I mean, the message should be, look, if you want to get rich, go do something else. You don't get rich through getting into public office or you do it later. You do it in a different point in your life. You get into public office into order to serve the public.
NNAMDI800-433-8850, what rules would you add to beef up local ethics laws? 800-433-8850. Let's go to Irvin in Silver Spring, Md. Irvin, thank you for waiting. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
IRVINGood afternoon, Kojo and to your guests. The statutes and legislations are good in terms of ethics laws and rules of government's transparency with elected officials, but I do think that personal responsibility and personal values have a lot to do with the situation that this area find themselves in with elected officials. I think, basically, there's a moral decay that has occurred in this country and is ongoing, and the fact that you have people who don't know how to use power or abuse power.
IRVINAnd when they get into positions of authority, they tend to abuse it because they don't have moral underpinning to be able to handle situations that they find themselves in. And they're susceptible to all kind of -- kinds of malfeasance.
IRVINI think, well, you have celebrity, I mean, crime in this country that people want to aspire to and to use money for their own personal gains. I think you have a group of people who are legacy members of the public council that should know better because they have a history and they have seen firsthand the types of abuses that have occurred in the city and the surrounding areas. And they still proceed to abuse it like they had no (word?) to understand what they were getting into.
NNAMDIIrvin -- when Irvin talks about legacy members of the council, he means people whose parents were involved in politics and who may have been elected officials. But I'd like to turn Irvin's point on its head, Andy Green. Hasn't it, in a way, always been thus? I mean, Cicero was writing about this stuff. Is it -- as Jamin Raskin says, do we -- can we trace it to the ups and downs of the economy itself, the waves of corruption that we might see, or is it simply part of doing business as a politician?
GREENI don't know about that. I'll take the professor's word for that.
GREENBut, you know, certainly if you want to look at the way things are now in Maryland, it doesn't hold a candle, say, to how the corruption -- how corrupt things were in the 1970s when you had a vice president of the United States from Maryland, you know, taking cash while in office.
NNAMDIIn the White House?
GREENIn the White House. You had, you know, county executives left and right -- back in my days of covering Baltimore County government, the editor -- one of the top editors of the paper at the time said he couldn't understand how we'd have difficulty getting stories because when he was doing that job in the '70s, all you had to do is sit around the courthouse and wait for the indictments to come down.
GREENThat kind of thing isn't really happening as much now, although we certainly have had a bit of rash of it recently. So you're right. This has been going on forever, although I would say that the public does itself no favors here when it lets elected officials get away with this stuff. You know, there are plenty of cases where elected officials have been implicated in behavior that's clearly unethical, whether it turns out to be criminal or not, and the voters have had no problem returning them to office.
GREENUlysses Currie ran unopposed for election last time in spite of the fact that all the facts in his case were known. We had a Baltimore City councilwoman who was re-elected handily this year in spite of having pled no contest to campaign finance violations. We had a Baltimore County councilman who was also re-elected in 2010 in spite of having also been convicted of campaign finance violation. So the public bear some responsibility here, too.
RASKINAnd we can add to that, Kojo, what's going on in Congress now is extraordinary where there are serious allegations of essentially insider trading by members of Congress who used information to say that's...
NNAMDIOh, that "60 Minutes" piece.
RASKIN...in possession of -- in order to make money and it's perfectly lawful within the rules. So I think with Congress, I think 9 percent in the public opinion polls, it's incumbent upon them to do something to at least clean up the most egregious examples of people coming to Washington just to make money for themselves.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Irvin. It turns out, Irvin, that it may be all your fault.
NNAMDIAs a member of the public. But, Irvin...
NNAMDIGo ahead, please, Irvin. Oh, I think Irvin had left us. Here is Nathan in Washington, D.C. Nathan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NATHANHi, Kojo. I'd like your commentators to discuss if they would, you know, the policies and restrictions for nonprofit organizations in complete transparency because we're considered to be operating in the public good. These are elected officials. They are supposed to be serving our highest good. Why aren't the regulations in place that would require near complete transparency? I don't think that that's outside the realm of possibility, necessity. I don't know...
NNAMDIWell, it seems that that varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, Nathan. Jamin Raskin, could you talk a little about what Maryland ethics law requires of its elected official, say, in terms of financial disclosure?
RASKINWell, we have ample financial disclosure requirements in terms of all business holdings or spouses' business holdings, other family members' business holdings, stock holdings and so on. But as I said, it doesn't add up too much right now because the public has a very tough time accessing it.
RASKINAnd so I think that the Internet, just as it's engineered transformation of politics, in some way globally, and certainly in America, as you see with the Occupy Wall Street movement, I think that the Internet can play a very positive role in terms of getting this information out there and making certain that people are aware of what their elected officials are involved in.
NNAMDIAndy Green, what do you feel about that? If financial disclosure forms are kept only in paper form, what does -- what effect does that have on accessibility?
GREENOh, yeah, I can certainly speak to this from an information consumer standpoint as somebody who has gone and pulled these files. You know, as the caller said, there's a lot of disclosure required for nonprofits. If I want to go online right now, I can find the tax returns for any nonprofit in this country, and I can find out what they're paying their top officers and all kinds of other information.
GREENHowever, as Jamin said, when I want to find out the same thing about what Sen. Raskin is making on the side and what his assets are and whether maybe he owns a big stake in a company that he's about to vote on, although, of course, I'm sure he doesn't...
NNAMDIHey, he lives in Takoma Park. He can't do that.
RASKINI ate a big steak once, but that was about it.
GREENExactly. Anyways, so you do have to go down to the state ethics commission offices in Annapolis, and it really makes you feel like you're doing something wrong when you look up these forms. You know, like you are somehow really prying into somebody's life in a way you're not supposed to because, you know, you do have to go and sign in. You sign your name and your home address actually on a form to say, yes, I'm looking at this elected official's or this cabinet officer or whatever's financial disclosure forms.
GREENAnd there is a provision in state law that says if that official has chosen, they can be automatically notified when their forms are looked at and give him the name and the address of the people who looked at them. And you think, you know, why on earth do they need this information about me looking at something that's supposed to be a public record? It really makes you feel almost criminal for looking into this stuff.
NNAMDINathan, thank you very much for your call. Tom Lindenfeld, I'm curious about the reluctance of elected officials to condemn ethical misconduct by their peers. In D.C., three council members called on Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. to resign after he agreed to repay the city that $300,000 to settle the lawsuit brought by the attorney general. The other eight council members and the mayor have publicly stayed silent. What message does that send to constituents?
LINDENFELDI don't know what message it sends, but I think it's clear that what is -- we all live with a degree of confusion. We don't know what happened. We don't know if Councilman Thomas is repaying $300,000. We don't know whether what he did was wrong or not. He hasn't said enough for us to understand that nor has anybody else. And, quite frankly, you can have everybody in the world call for him to resign. It's his choice.
LINDENFELDYou know, I'd rather that we ask council members to do something on which they can actually act, not on which they can simply speak. And if there are ways that they can act that would have more impact, that would be more appropriate than this. And I think that the whole process of calling for resignations, whether that was the post at the time when Marion Barry got into trouble or now, I think that's largely empty talk. I'd rather see action.
LINDENFELDAnd that's why I think that the actual bill that's being discussed and the imposition of a process of prosecution and full disclosure, a full disclosure of outside income, of possible conflicts all leads to a better day in D.C.
NNAMDIJamin Raskin, let's talk race. We got an email from Jake in Dupont Circle, who says, "Does Sen. Raskin see some or any of the same tension when it comes to race and ethics in the Maryland legislature?
NNAMDI"It seems that the Harry Thomas Jr. story in D.C. is going to include a very ugly debate about whether black politicians are being held to a different standard than their white colleagues, granted Harry Thomas Jr. is, to my knowledge, the only member of the D.C. Council who has agreed to pay $300,000 to settle a lawsuit accusing him of bilking youth sports funds for his own personal gain." Jamin.
RASKINFortunately, we haven't seen a racial dimension to this debate. And perhaps, unfortunately, we have seen a thoroughly multicultural, interracial approach to corruption, bribery and kickbacks, going back to Spiro Agnew and other corrupt officials in Maryland. And I think, you know, the public is growing increasingly disgusted by it.
RASKINAnd I do think that there's a politics to it that relates to growing inequality in the society, deepening divide between the haves and have-nots and a lot of politicians deciding they want to make sure they climb up to be with the haves rather than deal with the have-nots. I came across an interesting quote from Mayor Curley from Boston who was presented with some speech. I guess somebody was suggesting he make about redistribution of the wealth. And he said, redistribution of the wealth sounds good, but it's probably unrealistic. He said, the best we can hope for is redistribution of the graft.
RASKINAnd so I think there are some politicians who think, well, you know, now it's my team's turn to get in and redistribute the graft instead of thinking, in a serious way, about questions of distribution and allocation in the society generally.
NNAMDIAnd then, of course, there's the quote from late Chicago columnist Mike Royko decades ago, talking about African-American state legislators being dishonest. And he said, you have to give them time. They've only just gotten into the state legislature. They haven't yet learned how to steal yet like the whites that preceded them. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation about ethics and money in local politics.
NNAMDIIf you have called, stay on the line. The lines are still open, 800-433-8850. What rules would you add to beef up local ethics laws? Or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about ethics and money in local politics. We're talking with Maryland State Sen. Jamin Raskin. He is a Democrat representing Silver Spring and Takoma Park. He's also a law professor at American University. Andrew Green is opinion editor with The Baltimore Sun. He joins us from studios in Baltimore. And Tom Lindenfeld is a political consultant who has worked in several mayoral campaigns in D.C., including those of Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty.
NNAMDIWe're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. When we broke, Tom Lindenfeld, we were talking about those people who may say there's a double standard regarding African-American elected officials versus white officials because what they're looking around and seeing in Ulysses Currie and Jack Johnson and Harry Thomas Jr. and Mayor Vincent Gray and Council Chairman Kwame Brown are all African American elected officials. They're saying, hey, nobody seems to be scrutinizing white elected officials as closely. What say you?
LINDENFELDI'd say this is the time for leadership, not for excuses. This is the time when we have to address the real problems that we have regardless of race. And if there are -- there is wrongdoing, we have to figure out how to stop that from happening in the future. This is not a path that we can continue on. And, you know, my problem here in D.C. is that we have a prosecutorial system which is not open, not responsive, not available to any of us. And so that kind...
NNAMDIWe don't know who's being investigated.
LINDENFELDWe don't. And we don't know the stage of any of those investigations. And, quite frankly, to lump them altogether is wrong as well. I think that they're not all equal. I have, you know, with regard to Council Chairman Kwame Brown, we have no idea what it is that he's being accused of. You know, there was money that apparently wasn't disclosed into his account, either in or out. But the question is, what's the crime? And I have no idea. And it's a business that I'm deeply involved with. And I don't know.
LINDENFELDAnd I don't think anybody else does either, you know. With regard to our mayor, he's accused of something having to do with a mayoral campaign, and, quite frankly, it doesn't go to the heart of anything that's important to the people who live here in D.C. It -- you know, it may or may not be a crime. I have no idea. But it sure is very important. And I just find it hard to take all those and lump them together. I do believe, however, that there is a cloud of ethical concern that people in the District of Columbia share, regardless of race, that we can address, and are.
RASKINWell, it seems to me that critics have this important point to make, which is that there's a culture of impunity that is grown up around the subprime mortgage crisis scandal. I mean, I remember, back in the savings and loans scandal, hundreds of people went to jail across America. I mean, hundreds of people literally went to prison. And who's gone to jail after the most spectacular financial catastrophe in American history where there were clearly all kinds of criminal schemes engineered on Wall Street?
RASKINAnd now what we see is the SEC, simply because it's staggering under the weight of cases and says it can't keep up with -- the lawyers on the other side, is settling these cases without any admission of criminal culpability, without any confession on the other side and just a payment of money. So, you know, there is this general question of, who's going to pay the price for all of this corruption?
RASKINBut, you know, having said that, I think the public wants all of the corruption to stop. And I think that they're looking for elected officials who are not only not going to do it but they're going to be engaged in confronting the real problems that face society.
NNAMDIAndy Greene, before I get back to the phones -- and I will -- there's another aspect of that issue. A lot of local ethics laws detail what's forbidden, but they don't include any mechanism to remove offenders from office. Please explain the situation in Anne Arundel County where Councilmember Daryl Jones was sentenced to five months in jail for failing to file personal and business tax returns over a six-year period. Will he serve on the council from jail and continue to collect his county salary?
GREENSo far, it looks like he might. He is under no obligation to resign. There's no law in Anne Arundel County to do with mandatory resignation if you've been convicted of a crime, as there is in a number of jurisdictions, nor is there any mechanism under the Anne Arundel County charter or code that allows the council to eject one of its members, as there is in many other places. So you've got a guy who may literally be sitting in jail for five months, you know, presumably missing meetings as a result, collecting his salary, and there's nothing anybody can do about it.
NNAMDIHas he given any indication of an intention to resign or to stay?
GREENHe's thinking about it.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here now is Amy in Washington, D.C. Amy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MS. AMY SABRINHello, Kojo. My name is Amy Sabrin, and I am an attorney. And along with Bob Bennett, I conducted the investigation into earmark grants and contracts around Marion Barry's conduct.
SABRINAnd we recommended quite a few changes to the ethics system for the council, as well as, primarily, that the council do away with earmark grants, which...
NNAMDIFor those of our listeners who may not know or remember what you're talking about, this was a couple of years ago when Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry was found to be giving earmarks to a woman who -- with whom he was also having a personal relationship.
SABRINActually, he gave a contract to a woman he had a personal relationship with and then gave earmark grants to organizations that weren't even incorporated legally, and a lot of his friends were hired by...
SABRIN...grantees. And I raised this because, in connection with Councilman Thomas, the allegation is that he, too, benefited from these earmark grants. And the council has declined to abandon earmark grants. They put some more controls around them, but I don't believe they adopted disclosure rules, for example, that would require the grantees to disclose whether a councilmember or his employees or his -- I mean, relatives or people who have relationships with him were benefiting from these grants.
SABRINAnd they really need to be reined in. The -- in 2011, the grants weren't made because they just didn't have money, but they still are legally able to make them. And, you know, I would suggest that as another reform the council could implement.
NNAMDIWhat do you think, Tom Lindenfeld?
LINDENFELDSounds like a good idea to me.
NNAMDIAmy, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Kathleen in Sterling, Va. Kathleen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATHLEENHello. Some of you have a lawyer on board. I would like to know -- I really believe that this law that our congressmen have passed in the United States government to make criminal activity legal for themselves is not a legitimate law. And I think that that law is affecting everything else right down the line, right down to the state governments and the local governments.
NNAMDIYou're talking about what appears to be insider trading on the part of members of the Congress that is not illegal for them, but is illegal for everyone else?
NNAMDITom -- here's Jamie Raskin.
RASKINYeah. I think that's a scandalous situation. And, you know, the idea that you've got members of Congress who are getting inside information, essentially, on economic forecasts and economic information, and then betting against the American people in the state of the economy. I mean, it's much like what we heard about some of the investment banks on Wall Street that were basically shorting their own customers, basically, encouraging their customers to buy stocks that they were gambling against because they either thought or knew that it was going down in value.
RASKINAnd, again, this speaks to a culture of financial corruption that's out of control and that has begun to infect the political process in a serious way. And we need to establish very strong rules from the top down to prevent this kind of behavior from taking place.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Kathleen. We move on to Thomas in Glenmont, Md. Thomas, your turn.
THOMASYes. Your guest earlier had said that -- something about nonprofits and that he seemed to be implying that the nonprofits aren't as corrupt as some of the political systems. And I actually worked for a nonprofit (unintelligible) and it was immensely corrupt. And they kept their corruption hidden through bullying tactics and intimidation amongst the fellow employees.
THOMASThe people that have been there for years and years turned a blind eye, and the people that came in that tried to, you know, turn around that corruption and turn the money that was supposed to go to the clients and the people that could use the money, that needed the money, you know, they were just shunted to one side or handed their hat and eased out the door.
NNAMDIJamie Raskin, even though nonprofits have to do all of this disclosure, you still find nonprofits that are corrupt.
RASKINAnd that conduct should be reported to the state attorney general of the state you're in or to the secretary of state's office, whoever is governing not-for-profits. But one of the problems with political corruption is that it develops a conspiracy of silence among different institutions in society, where they -- when they all seem to get corrupt together, the political institutions, the financial institutions and the not-for-profit institutions.
RASKINAnd, I mean, it's a very sad thing to see. But I think that there is a tipping point for public feeling on the issue, and there's a growing fervor that we need to restore integrity to our public life.
NNAMDIAnd, Tom Lindenfeld, somebody wants to know, "How about the rules in the District of Columbia that allow you to serve as a lawyer for a member of the D.C. Council and lobby the council at the same time?"
LINDENFELDI'm not sure that law exists.
NNAMDIWell, there -- it is apparently not a violation of the law for my friend Fred Cook (sp?) to be able to serve as an attorney for a member of the council and as a lobbyist for the council.
LINDENFELDOh, got you, got you. I'm sorry. I thought you meant a member of the council and also a...
NNAMDIOh, no, no.
LINDENFELDYeah. I believe that the -- one of the things that happens in the law that's being contemplated right now is that no councilmember can receive free or low-cost legal assistance, that that would be a gift beyond what is allowed, and that would close, in effect, a loophole of the sort, but, yeah.
LINDENFELDYou know, I believe that lobbyists should not be able to give contributions. People who have contracts with the city should not be able to give contributions because it is a direct conflict and an opportunity to be able to grease the skids for themselves and not have an even playing field for the rest of us. And what you're pointing out is one component of that.
NNAMDIAndy Green, I'm returning to my earlier theme, in a way. Most corruption cases involve money, particularly money from businessmen and lobbyists. On the one hand, it takes a big war chest to run for office today, even at the county level. On the other hand, we don't want big money swing elected officials. Any way you can see of reconciling that conflict?
GREENWell, public financing of campaigns would certainly be a good start. You know, there are some states that have managed to enact these laws. Maryland has come, actually, surprisingly close a couple of times on the statewide level, so that's certainly something, I think, that could be enormously beneficial.
NNAMDIHere is Chris in Silver Spring, Md. Chris, you only have about 30 seconds, but make your case, please.
CHRISThanks for having me on, Kojo. I'm glad you touched on public financing 'cause that's what my question is about. I know that we have been -- you've been talking a lot about illegal corruption, but I'm very concerned about legalized corruption that has swayed our state legislatures and our national Congress. My question is for Sen. Raskin: What can we do in Maryland in the light of -- in light of Citizens United to push for campaign finance reform?
RASKINWell, we added corporate disclosure last year for more than $10,000 in expenditures. We came within one vote of public financing. But I think the one kind of public financing everybody can agree on should be public financing of judicial elections, where we really should not have lawyers and insurance companies and businesses appearing in court, paying for the judges to get elected.
RASKINWe've seen some extraordinary corruption like coming out of West Virginia on this, and I hope we could start, maybe this session, with at least public financing and judicial elections.
NNAMDIJamie Raskin is a Maryland state senator. He represents -- he's a Democrat representing Silver Spring and Takoma Park. He's also a law professor at American University. Jamie, thank you for joining us.
RASKINMy pleasure, as always.
NNAMDITom Lindenfeld is a political consultant who has worked on several mayoral campaigns here in the District of Columbia. Tom Lindenfeld, thank you for joining us.
LINDENFELDAppreciate it. Thank you.
NNAMDIAndy Green, always a pleasure. Andrew Green is opinion editor with The Baltimore Sun. Andy, thank you for joining us.
GREENOh, glad to be with you again, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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