The political racket

Posted: Feb 26, 2006 12:05 AM

For a price, the mob offers protection. So do many politicians.

The latest example comes from Colorado's Senate District 21, where Senator Deanna Hanna (D-Lakewood) appears to be a true-blue Al Capone enthusiast. Money doesn't fall like manna from heaven, knows Hanna. So, she is helping prime the pump with a little old-fashioned extortion.

Seems the state senator was in a tough re-election battle in 2004. Both she and her opponent vied for an endorsement — and the resultant campaign cashola — from the Jefferson County Realtors Association. The local realtors' group had backed Hanna in her previous race, but this time it decided not to make any endorsement.

After the election, Sen. Hanna learned that the statewide Association of Realtors, of which the Jefferson County group is a member, had endorsed her Republican opponent, Tori Merritts. And not only that, they also contributed $1,400 to Merritts's campaign.

Hanna won, so there was really no need to rub anybody out. Still, the Senator was peeved. She fired off a letter to the Realtors Small Donor Committee, the political action committee of the statewide Association of Realtors, suggesting that "$1,400 in post-election debt relief" might be a wise move on their part "in order to set things straight."

The not-so-subtle threat worked, to a degree. The realtors soon sent Sen. Hanna a check for $400. But of course loan sharks don't accept less than full payment. Why should politicians? So, Sen. Hanna demanded the rest.

Did I say demand? Let's just say she humbly requested the rest. Her follow-up letter to the Realtors Small Donor Committee read:

My reparations request stands. It seems a rather small price to pay for creating a fracture in my relation with your organization. It is my hope that you will make our relationship whole again. There are going to be some very important issues ahead of us. You have a choice. So do I.

Aside from the threatening tone, you might be wondering about the word "reparations." Well, politicians have a whole lexicon of their own. The Inuit have a multitude of words for snow, and I'm told the Germans have a good number of words for standing in line. Politicians have a good number of expressions for citizens forking over the dough.

In a February 17 article, the Rocky Mountain News broke this story. Now Sen. Hanna faces a probe of her above reparations-seeking activities by Colorado's Senate Ethics Committee . . . a probe requested, to his credit, by Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon (D-Denver). It was no doubt politically imperative that her now widely reported shakedown be investigated, but still, Gordon's on the right side, here.

The Majority Leader wrote in his complaint to the ethics committee:

Senator Hanna's language — whether she was intentionally soliciting money for favorable legislative action, which would be a crime, or through some lapse of judgment has written a letter capable of misinterpretation — tends to bring the Senate into disrepute, damages the Senate's reputation and serves to destroy the faith the public has in legislative bodies.

Yes. Indeed.

Even more so after Steve Welchert, a top Democratic political consultant and lobbyist, offered something of a defense of Sen. Hanna. He asked rhetorically, "Did Deanna Hanna push the envelope a little too far?" And answered, "Maybe so. But it's an everyday occurrence at the legislature. I've seen it. I've heard it. I've witnessed it."

Oh, he's certainly got a point, it's just the ho-hum, everyday, run-of-the-mill racketeering one would find in any capitol . . .

Hanna, retired from the Denver Public Schools after nearly four decades as a school nurse, is now in her second four-year senate term and is a committee chairman. She appears confident, telling a reporter, "I know the process. I'm prepared to go through it and in the end I think I will be vindicated."

The Senate Ethics probe could end up reprimanding, censuring or even expelling Hanna from the Senate. Or the panel could dismiss the complaint, if they agree with Sen. Hanna that she did nothing wrong.

But if she is guilty of writing the letter she doesn't deny she wrote, shouldn't she — like Capone — face jail? What she did is a crime. A serious one that undermines our free society — especially if it is an "everyday occurrence."

It is also a great reason to put more limits on governments: without government goons bullying in on every aspect of modern life, politicians' extortion attempts would become mere empty threats.