How to Drain the Cesspool of Government Corruption

I expect Utah is as much a cesspool of corruption as Texas, because that happens in one party states. This is not a partisan comment directed at Republican Utah. When Texas was one party Democratic, a Democrat State Treasurer placed public money in non-interest bearing accounts of banks whose officers made campaign contributions to keep him in office. Now the crooks are Republicans, but the problems are not so much in this or that party as in the lack of robust opposition.

When you add the decline of the newspaper business to a lack of organized opposition, public money is there for the taking and there have always been plenty of takers looking to feed at the public trough. So, you see, it’s not just tribal governments.

The Supreme Court deepened the political cesspool when it held that corporate persons have the same right as a human person to make campaign contributions. This gets us the Governor of North Carolina protecting the right of Duke Energy to abandon coal ash dumps, and it almost got us the Utah Attorney General’s office as a law firm for the defense of payday lenders.

The New York Times reports that resigned Utah Attorney General John Swallow was elected with money from payday lenders, who have been targeted for their unfair practices by President Obama’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Senate Republicans failed to cut off funding for the CFPB and for years refused to confirm anybody to head it. Obama’s first choice, Elizabeth Warren, got elected to the US Senate largely because that same Senate would not confirm her, or anybody else, to head the CFPB.

Everybody knows consumers don’t need protection, right? If you don’t like being ripped off by Citibank, you can “choose” Bank of America or Wells Fargo. When one of those behemoth banks advertises, “you need an Ally,” they don’t have Uncle Sam in mind.

Threatened on the federal level, payday lenders set out to buy themselves some local protection, and I don’t think for a second that Utah is the only state where they decided to play. It’s amazing how much money can be made ripping off poor people for what little they have.

The payday lender money was laundered though fake public interest groups such as the “Proper Role of Government Education Association.”

Fake public interest groups are organized under Sec. 501(c)(4) of the IRS Code, which says tax exemption (and political disclosure exemption) is limited to groups “operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare.” The IRS rules implementing this law morphed that to “operated primarily for the purpose of bringing about civic betterments and social improvements” and dirty money has moved through this loophole by the truckload.

It was the IRS attempt to slow down this truck traffic in the last election that led to the so-called “IRS scandal.” The GOP narrative, fed by Fox News to this day, is that conservative groups applying for 501(c)(4) tax and disclosure exemptions were unfairly singled out when a computer algorithm was applied to fetch the files using the words “Tea Party” or “patriots” in their names.

This revelation started a major brouhaha, harking back to President Richard Nixon’s use of the IRS to get his political enemies audited and questioning whether the legal firewalls erected after that scandal were sufficient to prevent the use of the IRS as a political weapon. Even the White House admitted that the IRS procedures had been “inappropriate.”

The resulting investigation quickly uncovered that the IRS officials involved were mostly Republicans and the algorithms were also set to spit out “progressive” and “occupy.” The complaints were not about denial of tax and disclosure exempt status but rather about delays and having to answer questions about political activities.

What was “inappropriate” was taking the word “exclusively” in a law and making it “primarily” in an agency rule. Having done that, it was plain that the IRS lacked the resources to closely examine all the applications, leaving aside what “primarily” is supposed to mean. Has anybody got a better idea than seining through applications for key words?

The Obama White House, making the political calculation that the average citizen will not go far enough into the weeds of agency rules to suss out the nonsense, fired three IRS officials in the chain of command, including the acting director of the agency.

The person fired closest to the ground was Lois Lerner, who took the Fifth Amendment before Rep. Darrell Issa’s House Committee on Grandstanding and Witchhunts….I mean, Fast & Furious and Benghazi….I mean, Oversight and Government Reform. While there is zero evidence of any criminal activity even alleged, and a separate FBI investigation turned up none, she would be crazy not to take the Fifth when the torches and pitchforks are still out and there’s no support from the top.

In the latest Issa dog and pony show, he recalled Lerner to ask a series of questions for the purpose of collecting Fifth Amendment sound bites. When the ranking Democratic member sought to let Lerner’s lawyer make a proffer to the committee that would demonstrate there was no there there, Issa cut off his microphone.

What can Indians concerned about corruption in tribal governments take away from this circus? Lots.

If we are “wards” and these clowns are supposed to be our teachers, we are in big trouble. However, the US Constitution does not apply to tribal governments, and so tribal laws can require total transparency of money spent in tribal elections and can limit the amount spent.

Tribal laws do not have to recognize corporate persons as equal to human persons and, on Indian land, we need not follow the rule of one dollar-one vote.

I’m not saying tribal governments can’t learn from the US and state governments. Some of the most important human learning comes from mistakes, and there are many ways to drain a cesspool.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.