Welcome to your weekly corruption rundown! As ever, we’ve pulled together some of the top stories you may have missed from around the country.
And while we have you here: RepresentUs will be headed to New Orleans this February to host the Unrig the System summit! If you like reading the corruption rundown, it’ll be right up your alley – advocates, experts, celebrities, and journalists from across the political spectrum working together on solutions to our republic’s most pressing problems. Learn more about the Unrig the System Summit here.
Mistrial Declared in the Senator Menendez Corruption Trial
The senator from New Jersey was tried on bribery charges related to gifts he accepted from a wealthy donor.
What might be the biggest corruption case of the year just ended … in a mistrial. This Thursday, a federal judge announced the jury was unable to come to consensus in considering whether Sen. Robert Menendez had broken bribery laws by taking action to benefit a Florida doctor who showered him in gifts. While Menendez took the result as a confirmation of his innocence, he may not be out of the woods yet – prosecutors can retry the New Jersey Democrat if they so choose. What’s more, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reacted to the news by calling for an ethics investigation into Menendez’s conduct.
The bottom line: Since the Supreme Court overturned former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s conviction, the legal definition of “corruption” has narrowed considerably, making it more difficult to enforce the law without clear evidence of quid pro quo bribery. If Menendez goes back on trial or faces an ethics probe, we may get a fuller picture about whether his actions crossed the line under the Supreme Court’s new definition.
After the Weinstein scandal, reformers push for restrictions on donations from defense attorneys to prosecutors
Things can get dicey when prosecutors choose not to go after their contributors’ clients.
It’s easy to overlook the influence game being played at the lower levels of government with so much bad behavior elsewhere. This is especially true of the judicial branch, which prides itself (and depends on) a reputation for being apolitical – even if many judicial branch officials have to run for office themselves. But there’s reason to look more closely at the money in prosecutors’ races, especially when the campaign cash is coming from the defense attorneys these prosecutors may one day face in court. “Nine of 10 cases are resolved through plea bargains,” the New York Times reports, and prosecutors have enormous power to “decide whether to bring a case or drop charges, to charge a misdemeanor or a felony, to demand prison or accept probation.” Conflicts emerge when a prosecutor decides not to pursue charges against a donor’s client, as in the case of Manhattan District Attorney and Harvey Weinstein. Some, including Vance himself, have begun to call for restrictions on donations from defense attorneys to prosecutors.
The bottom line: Influence matters at all levels of politics. Even if there isn’t foul play, curtailing these kinds of contributions would be a good way to avoid the appearance of serious conflicts in the criminal justice system.
Campaign contributors are getting $457,000 in no-bid contracts in a Louisiana parish
The contracts will increase payments 152% and 310% on two existing projects.
Oeaux boy. Two contractors in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, are getting quite the windfall – the parish council is set to add a total $457,000 to their existing contracts for additional work, all without considering other bids. The kicker? The two companies and their subcontractors have donated to the council members – including the officials pushing for the new payments. In fact, the New Orleans-area parish has developed quite the reputation for pay-to-play contracting. The vast majority of the top 100 donors to elected officials in Jefferson Parish from 2009 to 2012 were contractors, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune and WVUE Fox 8 television found in 2016.
The bottom line: Individuals and companies who seek or receive public contracts should not be allowed to donate campaign money to the very officials who approve those payments. The federal government hasn’t allowed it for more than 75 years, and Jefferson Parish needs to catch up.
Reformers march on Harrisburg to push for a lobbyist gift ban
RepresentUs members joined the walk to the Pennsylvania capitol to demand consideration of anti-corruption measures.
We like to end on a positive note whenever possible, so here’s some great news from Pennsylvania. Marching this week from Lancaster to the state capitol in Harrisburg, RepresentUs members joined the effort to make a ban on gifts from lobbyists to legislators a reality. The measure, alongside a redistricting reform bill, has been blocked from consideration by Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, chair of the House’s State Government Committee. Dozens made the 36-mile trek, led by March on Harrisburg, to rally at the capitol. Five activists were arrested and RepresentUs members from around the country donated plungers to demand that Metcalfe unblock the bills and let them come up for a vote. Read the full blog post, reported from the ground, here.
The bottom line: Local organizing moves the needle of change. These actions make it harder for politicians to ignore the will of the people, and push foward commonsense anti-corruption reforms. This is how we change our cities, states, and country for the better.
That’s all for this week, folks. Email any corruption stories you’d like to see covered to firstname.lastname@example.org.