Skip to main Content

My fight on the witness stand to prove the obvious: money corrupts

On the witness stand in U.S. District Court on Tuesday, I tried to emphasize my ethical faults when I was a politician, playing a game of cat and mouse with a lawyer trying to trick me into saying I wasn't such a bad guy.

I had entered into the fantasy world created by the U.S. Supreme Court's campaign finance laws. In that world, political corruption is almost impossible and the public has almost no legitimate concern about the integrity of government. It's an upside-down version of reality.

My role in the case, as I wrote here a month ago, came from my service on the Anchorage Assembly in the 1990s. Although then known as annoyingly squeaky clean, I implicated myself as being influenced in my decisions by campaign contributions. During closing arguments Tuesday, Judge Timothy Burgess said I was the only witness who had done so — and thus the only evidence on the record that campaign money actually affects political decisions.

Attorney Kevin Clarkson went after me fiercely in cross-examination. He's the attorney for several Republican activists hoping to strike down limits on campaign contributions in Alaska. He leaned forward, shot questions rapid-fire, interrupted my answers, and, when I made self-incriminating comments, looked away in frustration and disbelief.

It's true. When I was on the Anchorage Assembly, I did feel the pressure of the sordid system in which we place our elected officials. I'm ashamed I wasn't stronger. But I think only a saint would be completely unaffected. It's the system that's broken, not the people. That's why I quit.

But Clarkson disagreed. Forced to deal with my honest statements that I couldn't avoid being influenced, he suggested the problem was just me. Perhaps, unlike other politicians, who are all honorable, I alone didn't know how to say 'no.'

I suppose that's theoretically possible. But it takes a powerful imagination to enter into the Supreme Court's alternate reality, a place where campaign finance laws are close to unnecessary.

In that world, wealthy donors are inspired by memories of their junior high civics classes to give money to politicians they know can't be bought. The sleazy bar owners, real estate developers and union bosses who invest so heavily in elections are the real patriots. Reformers trying to limit donations just hate freedom.

How did we get here?

President Theodore Roosevelt championed the first campaign finance laws more than a century ago, seeing that without them, government would become a tool of large corporations. Sixty years later, the Watergate scandal led to laws making campaign finance rules much stricter.

But in 1976, the Supreme Court struck down some of those laws with a ruling that equated campaign contributions to free speech, which meant that limiting donations could violate the First Amendment. The only proper restrictions would be the minimum needed to prevent corruption.

The current court got rid of many more limits by redefining corruption. Most attention has been paid to the Citizens United ruling overturning the ban on corporate contributions that Roosevelt championed. But the court did as much damage by saying most corruption isn't corruption.

The court ruled that the only valid reason to limit contributions is to stop quid pro quo corruption — money being given directly in exchange for a specific action — or the perception of that kind of exchange. Winning access by giving money or buying a politician outright is OK. Since that's how the system works in real life, corruption no longer exists.

Here's an example. A friend who works as a political consultant nationally was meeting with a Missouri legislator recently when a visitor asked to come into the office. The legislator checked a list of contributors — only those who had paid could see him.

According to the Supreme Court, that isn't corrupt. It's the equivalent of free speech.

In closing arguments Tuesday, Clarkson and Judge Burgess talked back and forth, trying to figure out what quid pro quo corruption is. Clarkson said a donor could give a check to a senator in the Capitol while asking for a vote and that wouldn't count. Burgess said Clarkson had defined corruption out of existence.

By the Supreme Court's reasoning, a politician and donor would need to contract for a vote for a contribution to be corrupt. Even if money has perverted our system to the point of widespread public disgust, it is protected by the Constitution.

Of course, the Constitution says nothing of the kind. Equating money and speech is illogical and nothing the founders ever considered. But then, the founders also didn't intend for the Supreme Court to be the political body it has become. Today it is a panel of nine lifetime monarchs who, once chosen, can make almost any law they like.

In 1885, Woodrow Wilson (who would become president in 1912) wrote that the Constitution's checks and balances were flawed. Since the Supreme Court alone interpreted the Constitution, it could interpret the Constitution to give itself ever more power. Wilson said that process would expand the federal government's reach too, which has happened.

Conservatives complain about federal intrusion in our lives. Liberals complain about corporate control of government. Both problems destroy democracy, and, in both, Supreme Court decisions are the root cause.

But instead of getting together to change the system, we fight our elections to decide which party will get to choose the lawgivers of the Supreme Court. We're at it again right now.

Judges live in the real world. They know how politics works. Alaska's judicial selection process is unusually clean, but in most of the country and for most of the federal bench, you don't get to be a judge without making campaign contributions.

Democracy was policing itself, slowly and imperfectly, until the courts intervened. I put myself forward as a bad guy to help defend the laws Alaskans passed.

But this battle won't be won in the courts. Our broken political system can only be fixed by amending the U.S. Constitution.

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly.

The views expressed here are the writer's 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.

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.

Comments