When FBI agents swooped down on the state Capitol three-plus decades ago to cap an undercover sting delving into pay-to-play corruption, Assemblyman John Vasconcellos was incensed about the invasion of “my house.”
Vasconcellos, who died in 2014, wasn’t a target of the investigation, nor should he have been. But his “my house” reaction to the“Shrimpgate” investigationrevealed a common mindset of veteran politicians. After years in office, they tend to view their positions as personal possessions, rather than as temporary opportunities to serve their constituents.
That possessive attitude sometimes manifests itself in corruption. Legislators and other politicians make decisions with immense financial consequences and some rationalize that they are entitled to shares of the bounty.
Campaign Contributions Can Backfire
Campaign contributions are a semi-legal way for those who benefit from political decisions to express their gratitude, but they can backfire legally if there is some overt quid pro quo. During the Shrimpgate investigation, Capitol politicians were ensnared for demanding both campaign money and personal payoffs from undercover FBI agents seeking legislation to benefit a fictitious shrimp processing company.
So-called “behested” payments are another. Interest groups curry favor by making “contributions” to politicians’ favorite charities that sometimes employ the politicians’ relatives, as CalMatters writer Laurel Rosenhall has detailed. There are limits on direct campaign contributions, but none on behested payments. Belatedly, the Fair Political Practices Commission is promulgating new disclosure rules.
The federal indictment of Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas alleges another wrinkle in the corruption game. Ridley-Thomas, who has jumped from office to office for the last three decades, is accused of helping a University of Southern California administrator obtain hefty county contracts in return for getting his son, Sebastian, a no-cost graduate degree and a full-time faculty position.
The elder Ridley-Thomas was a county supervisor when the alleged transaction took place. His son is a former state legislator who resigned in the midst of a sexual harassment investigation.
California’s Corruption Surge
California has seen something of a corruption surge in recent years. One former Los Angeles City Council member is already serving a federal prison term for corruption and another is awaiting trial.
Indictments of officials and political players in the small communities on the periphery of Los Angeles are so common that they scarcely raise an eyebrow. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon calls his Los Angeles County district a “corrridor of corruption.”
The Shrimpgate scandal fueled a successful drive to place term limits on state legislators, in theory discouraging perpetual political careers that breed arrogance and corruption. However, there have been several corruption cases since, including a state senator convicted of involvement in an international gunrunning scheme.
That legislator, Leland Yee, represented San Francisco, which is experiencing another corruption scandal.
Mohammed Nuru, the city’s former public works director is, as the San Francisco Chronicle summarizes, “at the center of a widespread federal corruption case that has linked city officials, contractors, nonprofit groups and others in a web of alleged bribery and fraud. The former public works director was arrested in January 2020 for allegedly attempting to bribe an airport commissioner. His case is still pending in federal court.”
Conditions That Lead to Misdeeds
It’s not uncommon for members of the public to declare that all politicians are crooks. They aren’t. Most are sincere and honest, whether or not one agrees with their actons.
However, there is corruption and it flourishes most often when there is no meaningful political competition, when politicians believe that they own their positions and are entitled to pieces of the action, and when the watchdogs are not watching closely enough.
About the Author
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.