Corruption Allegations: Disappointing but Hardly Surprising
A version of this commentary appeared in the St. Louis Business Journal.
In 1977, the Chicago Sun Times newspaper bought a bar. They didn’t just buy it to serve people drinks. They bought it—under a fake name—for the purpose of loading it up with video and audio recording equipment to expose the rampant political corruption in Chicago. For months, as the bar went through the standard process of getting permits, licenses, and so on, the operators recorded the unending stream of bribe requests, kickback demands, and more that were (and arguably still are) commonplace in Chicago.
Even though news of corruption in Chicago was hardly earth-shattering, the series of stories released in 1978 caused a sensation. Rarely had the political cancer been so clearly documented via media, and the constant brazenness of the corruption startled the people of Chicago, who until then may have thought they’d seen everything.
Which leads us to last week’s news about the federal indictments of three St. Louis City aldermen on corruption charges. I may work at a think tank, but I know a little about bribery attempts. Back in 2001, I got a first-hand look at an attempted bribe for then-County Councilman John Campisi. He had just finished a meeting with a taxicab operator who, as he departed, left a brown paper bag on the Councilman’s desk. Suspicious, Campisi asked me (at the time a council aide) to come to his office so that we would both be present when someone (me) opened the bag. Sure enough, the bag had a bribe in it. The next year, that taxicab operator, another councilman who had arranged the meeting, and a few other county employees involved in the racket were convicted of bribery. That was the biggest scandal Clayton had seen until Steve Stenger decided to turn the 9th floor of the county building into a live-action RICO performance.
A part of me is delighted with the bribery charges. I have spent years decrying (including in the pages of this newspaper) the abuse of precisely the two things that appear to be at the heart of the corruption charges: tax abatements and the city land bank. Rest assured, I am going to update my talking points on these two issues, and trust me when I say that audiences pay a lot more attention when the lead is “politicians take bribes” than when the lead is “studies show . . .”
But on a more serious note, a much larger part of me is angry and depressed over the allegations. While everyone is innocent until proven guilty, the main question I ask is not about the guilt or innocence of these three politicians, but whether we have a system that enables corruption in St. Louis and the rest of our state (paging Tom Pendergast, please). I have to think the answer is a very dispiriting “yes, we do.” The ease with which tax subsidies, abatements, and so on can be handed out has long made them susceptible to this risk.
The tax subsidy rot is not limited to the minnows. Never forget that, for all Governor Eric Greitens’s flaws and self-inflicted wounds, the tax-credit industry apparently mobilized a political hit squad for him after he had the audacity to kill their golden goose in the low-income housing tax credit program. And while large-scale developers around the state may be smart enough to ensure their payments to elected officials are done as perfectly legal political donations instead of unreported cash-in-a-bag, one strongly suspects that the abuse of tax-increment financing (TIF), special taxing districts, and other forms of corporate welfare is greased by the legal version of just what got the three aldermen indicted. I have no doubt that some of the people at St. Louis’s country club bars who are most appalled by bribery charges in the city are standing next in line to get their own special tax credits or floodplain TIF deals.
The stench of corruption, both now and in the past, carries with it very real harms for our region. So back to Chicago: Studies have shown (see, I can’t avoid that phrase) that corruption costs Illinois $550 million a year. That represents the cost of not only the direct bribery, but, much more so, the decreased economic growth and lost investment that result from the fear of corruption. Ask yourself: would you think twice about investing in Mexico now? Of course you would. The endemic violence and corruption would make any rational person think twice. The same thing is true for cities and states known for corruption in our own country. Under Steve Stenger, some bidders undoubtedly thought twice about bidding on St. Louis County projects, knowing as they did that a winning bid was not going to be finalized until the county executive received a large campaign donation. Accounts of corruption in the City of St. Louis give residents and investors one more reason to keep themselves and their money out of the city. That’s the last thing the city needs right now, but that’s what it has.
As is often said, when the business of buying and selling is controlled by the legislature, the first thing to be bought and sold will be the legislators. Good government types (of which I am one), must do more than simply call for “electing better people.” We need to remove the incentives and opportunities for corruption. In the latest instance in the city, we should respond by completely eliminating the ability of politicians to dole out tax subsidies, credits, and abatements. Gambling addicts shouldn’t hang out in casinos and hope they aren’t tempted. The problem of corruption in our community will continue until we reduce the involvement in government in our daily lives and shrink the number of things that can corrupt politicians in the first place.