End Legal Bribery

End Legal Bribery

As election spending has escalated to previously unimaginable levels, public confidence in government has plummeted to the lowest levels ever recorded. No wonder. Citizens watch a tiny segment of society – the wealthiest and most privileged among us – make huge “donations” (sounds downright charitable, doesn’t it?) and then get benefits worth far more than their gifts. Tax breaks. Public subsidies. Pork barrel spending. Government contracts.

The public gets it. It’s time to call it what it is . . . legal bribery.

Wisconsin’s bribery law is 115 years old and nearly 40 years ago lawmakers added a gift ban to the state ethics code making it illegal for anyone to give “anything of value” to a state public official if it could reasonably be expected to influence or reward the official’s vote, actions or judgment. But the law carves out an exception for political contributions. That might not have seemed like much of an oversight when the laws were written and election campaigns were inexpensive and campaign contributions were small to nonexistent. But with today’s campaign arms race, it is a loophole big enough to drive the proverbial Mack truck through. And a big enough loophole to effectively enable legal bribery.

Face it, in this day and age it is hard to imagine anything of greater value to your average politician than a campaign donation.

State laws that are supposed to protect us from government corruption now look pretty silly. It is a crime, punishable by imprisonment, to hand a politician a roll of $20 bills in a brown paper bag in hopes of gaining a favor. But it is perfectly legal to shower any amount of money on that same official by simply calling it a campaign contribution or an “independent expenditure.” Only fools give or take bribes the old-fashioned way anymore, when there are perfectly legal avenues for politicians to get unlimited financial support from wealthy special interests seeking to corrupt our government.

Restoring teeth to laws designed to guard against corruption starts with shoring up Wisconsin’s ethics code by requiring state officials to surrender their ability to make decisions benefiting major campaign supporters. Our proposal does just that. It amends the state’s conflict of interest law so officials would have to abstain from acting on matters of interest to those who provide substantial campaign support. This does not ban campaign contributions. What it does do is write common sense into state law by recognizing that campaign donations are, in fact, something of considerable value to politicians that can be corrupting. And it allows citizens to have confidence that decisions affecting them are not being made by state officials swayed by those who provide substantial financial support to their campaigns.

Over the longer haul, we challenge Wisconsin lawmakers to amend the state’s gift ban with a modern definition of “anything of value” that addresses political contributions and other forms of election campaign support.

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