Other People’s Money

Some interesting fallout from the light sentence given to Pennsylvania state senator Vincent Fumo for his conviction on corruption charges, a sentence that the judge in the case justified as recognition of Fumo’s many good deeds. (The 55-month sentence is less than the plea deal Fumo was originally offered.)

Said good deeds were documented by a long parade of prominent character witnesses who sent letters to the judge. The letter that sticks in my craw most is from the current Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell.

Rendell does a bit of damning-with-faint-praise in his letter, which I mostly took to be an effort to build in a firewall between himself and whatever the sentence to Fumo ended up being. The thrust of his letter, however, is that Fumo worked hard on the behalf of less-fortunate Pennsylvanians, including people not in his own district, and that these good works should be considered as mitigating his illegal conduct.

What bugs me about this is that it frames the kind of corruption that Fumo engaged in as a kind of personal misconduct that has no political or social implications in its own right. I’d actually buy that argument if Fumo had been convicted of assault or of breaking into his neighbor’s house to steal something. There can be a big disconnect between good works in the world and individual crime or immorality.

Fumo, however, was systematically making the plight of less-fortunate Pennsylvanians more rather than less dire. Rendell gets it exactly wrong. Fumo was stealing “other people’s money” and redirecting it to his personal use. He was using the protected concept of a non-profit institution to carry out this activity. Fumo, like much of the Pennsylvania legislature, had no meaningful conception of the public interest beyond the reproduction of a self-aggrandizing network of people and resources.

I don’t think this is just Ed Rendell being Ed Rendell. I think this is a blindspot that crops up across the ideological spectrum in American (and arguably global) politics, but that is especially annoying when it comes from liberal Democrats. If someone’s delivered some votes here and there in support of progressive legislation, that means almost nothing if they’re constantly draining off resources that might be used to progressive ends in favor of keeping the wheels greased for a small elite of people centered on the politician himself or herself. Whatever goes out the door with those votes gets smuggled back in through phony non-profits, wink-wink nod-nod kickbacks, under-the-radar earmarks and the like. Lauding someone like Fumo for helping poor people is like praising water for being dry or sunlight for being dark. And yet, Rendell isn’t the only one to look the other way when stories like this break, to downplay the consequences.

If some punk off the streets breaks into a house and rips off some jewelry, maybe I’d be willing to find mitigation in the fact that he also volunteers at the local soup kitchen, is nice to children, has a little dog named Smookums and was abandoned by his father when he was six. Theft from the public by a public official, whatever his character, is of a graver category of offense than one person stealing from another person, and nothing should mitigate its gravity. We’ve been falling all over ourselves for three decades in the United States to get tough on crime, make mandatory sentences more and more extreme, and yet somehow official misconduct never seems to be crime in the same sense. Maybe it’s not: it’s worse.

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