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Ensuring that money doesn't taint politics is a delicate balance

  • Author: Michael Carey
    | Alaska opinion
  • Updated: June 25, 2016
  • Published May 9, 2016

The Alaska campaign contribution trial that ended last week attracted a small audience. I sat through most of the trial, which lasted seven days, and most of the time I was a lone representative of the public, the only one in the room not paid to attend.

The attorneys, the federal judge, and their staffs provided me with a personal seminar on campaign contribution law in general and the Alaska law in particular.

Under current Alaska law, which the three plaintiffs' lawyer Kevin Clarkson attacked as so low challengers cannot mount competitive campaigns and contributors cannot raise their voices above a whisper, individual Alaskans can annually give $500 to a candidate and $500 to a group supporting a candidate. Nonresidents can contribute to candidates, but the candidates face limits of how much they can receive. In House races, for example, candidates can receive a total of $3,000 from all Outside contributors. Meanwhile, independent expenditures for or against a candidate, which do not pass through a candidate's hands, are unlimited.

The word corruption was in the courtroom air repeatedly, voiced by lawyers, the judge, and witnesses.

Outside the courthouse, Alaskans use the word "corruption" freely, occasionally basing the charge on evidence, more commonly on how the accuser feels about the accused. For Republicans, Hillary Clinton is by definition corrupt; for Democrats, Donald Trump is the same.

The United States Supreme Court and other courts have resorted to Latin to define political corruption: Quid pro quo, a transaction in which something of value, usually money, is exchanged for government action. Bribery is the classic example, with a history extending back to the Old Testament.

State lawyers defending the current contribution limits emphasized the menace of corruption by showing the infamous grainy videotape of Vic Kohring, then a member of the state House, receiving cash from oil field service company executive Bill Allen. You didn't need mastery of Latin to understand the video that sent Kohring to jail. (The plaintiffs' Clarkson dismissed the video as irrelevant given that bribery by definition is a crime while campaign contributions are a legal, regulated form of candidate support.)

In her closing argument for the state, Margaret Paton-Walsh said, "There is no way to tell the difference between a quid-pro-quo contribution and a legitimate contribution." Without knowing the intent of the donor and the recipient, legal and illegal donations look alike as long as they comply with contribution limits.

Earl Long (1895-1960), governor of Louisiana three times, master of the bribe and sweetheart deal, offered the following advice to acolytes: "Don't write anything you can phone. Don't phone anything you can talk. Don't talk anything you can whisper. Don't whisper anything you can smile. Don't smile anything you can nod. Don't nod anything you can wink."

Appearance matters. That's why those who participated in the trial spoke not only of corruption but the appearance of corruption, which like corruption itself can undermine the public's confidence in government.

As a student, I read Hannah Arendt's "On Revolution." Arendt was a philosopher with a philosopher's interest in epistemology, the study of how we know things. During the French Revolution, Arendt explained, the revolutionaries led by the radical ?Maximilien? Robespierre became obsessed with hypocrisy. This seems strange for a group attempting to recreate France but becomes understandable once you realize Robespierre wanted to know who was a true revolutionary and who was merely offering appearance, playing a part. Hypocrite is Greek in origin -- meaning actor, one who wears a mask as Greek actors did.

During his closing argument, Kevin Clarkson noted that the courts have established campaign contributors' right to associate with candidates and express their freedom of speech through campaign contributions. He added, "There is nothing corrupt about a citizen wanting to know where a candidate stands" -- and giving money after obtaining that information. While there's a line the contributors cannot cross, Clarkson continued, the government must allow contributors to come right up to that line -- difficult as the line may be to establish. If the location is in doubt, the benefit of the doubt should go to the contributor.

Few Americans have ever been near that line. Maybe 1 percent of them make campaign contributions. Americans are far more likely to donate to a church than a politician.

Bill Allen and "Corrupt Bastards Club" have been out of business for a decade. It's becoming difficult to remember just how influential Allen was in Juneau through legal campaign contributions as well as illegal handouts. When Allen was in the halls of the Capitol, the building shook. Everybody noted his presence.

After pleading guilty to corruption, Allen appeared as a witness against his former partners in crime. His testimony included why he got into politics -- why he made his company Veco Corp. a political force. Allen said he became political -- specifically through campaign contributions -- because he had difficulty obtaining North Slope contracts. He was losing work to Native corporations. So, struggling in free enterprise, he turned to politics to improve his business. Clearly he understood the oil companies would look favorably on his ability to produce a Legislature subservient to Big Oil.

Allen was involved in campaign contribution violations in the 1980s long before the FBI arrested him. He went over Clarkson's line and the Alaska Public Offices Commission fined him. After that costly lesson, he figured out how to serve his interests behind the line.

I got to know Allen's former lobbyist, Ed Dankworth, after he left Allen, and while the corruption trials were in progress, Dankworth told me that as Allen gained power over lawmakers he became more blunt about what power meant. Pointing to a House member, Allen said "We own him, don't we?" Dankworth, in his telling, rebuked that with, "You can't say that, Bill." When Allen repeated himself later, Dankworth shot back, "We don't talk that way around here (the capitol), Bill." Dankworth, a former police officer, had good reason not to tolerate this kind of talk even as hyperbole.

The Allen-Dankworth relationship collapsed after Allen asked Dankworth to sever his ties with a long-term lobbying client, Dankworth told me. Dankworth was not around for the disaster Allen brought on himself by veering into the criminal activity demonstrated on the Kohring tape.

Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota law professor who appeared as an expert witness for the state told the court, "Elected officials should be dependent on voters. It's the money that corrupts people -- not voters." He also said, "Corruption is dependency. The candidate doing something he normally wouldn't do because of money."

Money is the mother's milk of politics. It's impossible to campaign without it. But how can the state, acting on behalf of the public, ensure that mother's milk is not poisonous? That's the challenge facing those who write campaign finance laws -- and the courts that pass judgment on them.

Michael Carey is an Alaska Dispatch News columnist. He can be reached atmcarey@alaskadispatch.com

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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