First, there was Bell, Calif., the little L.A. suburb that achieved distinction for its florid corruption. Robert Rizzo, former city manager, stands accused of 53 counts of misappropriating public funds and conflicts of interest.
In a town described as the poorest in L.A. county (average income $30,000, unemployment rate 16 percent), Rizzo earned a salary of nearly $800,000 in 2009 and was expecting to rake in $1.5 million this year.
In addition to Rizzo, police arrested and charged the assistant city manager, mayor, and a gaggle of council members. It was, in the words of the district attorney, "corruption on steroids." At least 50 city officials, including Rizzo, reportedly received loans from the city worth $1.6 million. The chief of police resigned after the LA Times reported that he was earning a salary of $457,000.
No sooner were the mug shots of Bell's city fathers dry that news came of Irwindale, Calif., another town of modest means (average income $30,000, poverty rate 16.4 percent) governed by high-rolling executives. Four current and former Irwindale officials, including a council member, have been charged with misuse of public funds.
The accused made a reported five trips to New York City, between 2001 and 2005, purportedly to secure a higher bond rating for Irwindale. But prosecutors allege that "mostly they partied."
The LA Times provides the details. The town had set aside $87 million for an "affordable housing" fund, but "little housing was built or rehabilitated" according to the paper. Officials did dip into the fund, however, for lavish trips to New York. They stayed at the Ritz Carlton for as many as six nights at a time. They dined at the extremely pricey Le Bernadin and River Cafe. They purchased tickets for themselves to Yankees and Mets games and to Broadway shows like "Phantom of the Opera" and "Mamma Mia," and they arranged for chauffeurs to take them from place to place. The final bill for the five trips is estimated at $205,678. Not in Bell's league perhaps, but galling nonetheless.
In addition to Bell and Irwindale, two other Los Angeles suburbs have recently been disgraced by public corruption. The former mayor of Temple City recently pleaded no contest to bribery and other charges and will do 16 months. In Vernon, a tiny town of 100 residents, city managers were making salaries of $1.6 million and enjoying perks like first-class air travel and $800-per-night hotel rooms.
Public corruption is not the norm in American government, but it's hardly unusual either. The Justice Department's Public Integrity section reports annually on prosecutions of federal, state, and local officials. Page through the document and discover a rogue's gallery of cheaters, thieves, swindlers, and rats. In 2009 alone, Jack Abramoff and 13 of his associates (including one former member of Congress) pleaded guilty to "honest services fraud" and related offenses. The former office manager for Sen. Edward Kennedy was indicted on charges of padding his salary to the tune of $75,000 and submitting false records to successive chiefs of staff. A parade of military members and contractors apparently helped themselves to funds meant for the Iraq Coalition Provisional Authority. And at the state level, four members of the Alaska House of Representatives were indicted, a judge in New York was convicted of extortion and seeking a bribe, and so on.
Besides prosecuting and shaming them, how can we combat the sticky fingers of our elected officials? "The more corrupt the state, the more the laws," advised Tacitus. As a corollary, the more money they have to spend, the more opportunities for mischief we afford them. Even when they're spending money honestly, most of it is wasted in government. How much of the trillion-dollar stimulus helped to create jobs? How well has Head Start, the marquee liberal program, helped low-income kids? According to a recent HHS analysis, not at all.
As we head to the polls, it's a good time to recall the wisdom of Milton Friedman. "There are four ways in which you can spend money. You can spend your own money on yourself. When you do that, why then you really watch out what you're doing, and you try to get the most for your money. Then you can spend your own money on somebody else. For example, I buy a birthday present for someone. Well, then I'm not so careful about the content of the present, but I'm very careful about the cost. Then, I can spend somebody else's money on myself. And if I spend somebody else's money on myself, then I'm sure going to have a good lunch! Finally, I can spend somebody else's money on somebody else. And if I spend somebody else's money on somebody else, I'm not concerned about how much it is, and I'm not concerned about what I get. And that's government."