A Brief History of Political Corruption

Ken Rudin's Column

Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) is just the latest in a long line of national politicians to be accused of accepting cash bribes. Steve Inskeep talks to Ken Rudin, political editor at NPR, about the history of corruption among elected officials.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Okay, we do not know if a Louisiana Congressman will be formerly accused of bribery. William Jefferson is not charged with anything and says there are two sides to the story.

But while we wait for more, we do have the tantalizing details of an affidavit. The FBI filed it in court, and it describes one way to handle a bribe. The document says the Congressman accepted $100,000 in a leather briefcase. The FBI says it recovered most of that money inside Jefferson's home freezer, wrapped in aluminum foil and concealed in food containers.

NPR's Political Editor, Ken Rudin, is here to talk about the long history of bribery in Washington, and the techniques involved.

Ken, good morning.

KEN RUDIN reporting:

Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Isn't this a rather old-fashioned technique, actually passing cash around?

RUDIN: It is. I suppose, when you look at the Jack Abramoff scandal, with these trips to Scotland and these favors for Indian tribes, and these, you know, seven degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon; you know, you really don't know what's happening. But the old - good old days, it's exactly what we saw.

I mean, remember there was Bill Thompson - Big Bill Thompson used to - he was the Mayor of Chicago in 1920. The last Republican elected, and I will tell you why he was the last Republican. They'll never elect another Republican because of Bill Thompson.

He was on - he vowed to clean up corruption, and he was on Al Capone's payroll. When Bill Thompson died in 1944, they opened up these safe deposit boxes and they found a million-and-a-half dollars in cash, all from the Capone mob. And so - I mean, that was the good old days.

INSKEEP: And ever since then, Chicago has been in the hands of Democrats, who've run the city so cleanly.

RUDIN: Absolutely. A matter of fact, that's why Chicago is - they say thank God for New Orleans.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: I mean, the Abscam trial was a great thing. They had this FBI sting operation in 1980, where they had these FBI agents dressed as Arab businessmen, and you see these members of Congress on videotape stuffing cash in their pockets. Richard Kelly, the Republican of Florida, you see him just saying thank you very much, thank you very much, as he's putting cash in his coat pocket. Ozzie Myers, a Democrat from Philadelphia, he says, well, you know, money talks and BS walks, you know, so just give me the money.

Spiro Agnew, when he was Governor of Maryland, and when he was vice president -people would bring cash into his office.

INSKEEP: But as time has gone on, it's begun to seem a little tacky to actually hand over cash, hasn't it?

RUDIN: Well, of course, it's tacky, but from day one, they've been very smart about it. Bobby Baker - if you go back to the Bobby Baker days - I mean, they used to shovel money into - Bobby Baker knew where the bodies were buried.

INSKEEP: This was an aid to Lyndon Johnson.

RUDIN: Lyndon Johnson, when he was Senate majority leader and vice president, and when he went into the presidency after Dallas. And Bobby Baker knew where all the bodies were buried. Matter of fact, he was probably responsible for burying a lot of those bodies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: And he just - you know, the rumors are, is that he just was shoveling tons of cash to Lyndon Johnson. Johnson got very rich, Bobby Baker got very rich, but nobody knew how they got rich.

INSKEEP: Is it more common that people are trying to influence big public policy, or influence small business deals or things of special interest?

RUDIN: Well, that's the thing with Bill Jefferson, whether or not he's guilty. In the affidavit he said he wanted - he wrote a big letter C, and so the guy -the informant said, why C? He said, I want this money for my children.

I mean, I like the old days when Richard Nixon would get a dog, Checkers; and that was the big corruption of 1952 when he got this dog from this slush fund in California. But Checkers is gone and so is Richard Nixon.

INSKEEP: How sad, how sad, how sad. Now, it's often said, though, that the most - that the biggest scandals in Washington are the things that are legal.

RUDIN: Well, that's exactly true. And so when you talk about changing the ethics law - well, people will say, well, what did I do wrong? Bob Ney will say - he's the Republican Congressman from Ohio - he'll say, well, all I did was give speeches on the House floor. I didn't take any money. But, again, he may be under indictment soon. There's a lot of - a feeling of a culture of corruption where following the law is where the crime is not so much breaking the law, but the law itself.

INSKEEP: So you can actually end up having more respect for the people that just demand the payoff, and take the payoff, and give the payoff, and just do it straight up?

RUDIN: That's right. Where is Spiro Agnew when we need him?

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Okay, Ken. Thanks very much for coming in and giving us a little bit of history this morning.

RUDIN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin.

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