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Paul Carpenter's Conviction Takes Us Beyond 'Smoking Gun' Corruption : Politics: Selling access can be as unacceptable as selling votes, the jury said. But comprehensive campaign reform is still needed.

September 30, 1990|Walter A. Zelman | Walter A. Zelman writes about California government and politics.

For many years, legislators, lobbyists and major campaign contributors have defended California's system of financing political campaigns by arguing that contributions do not buy votes--only increase access to those who cast them. While the system, the defenders concede, may offer some advantages to major contributors, those advantages--merely the better chance to make one's case--are not the stuff of which political corruption is made.

This defense has always been weak, if not wholly specious. Even if its premise--that contributions only buy increased access--were granted, the line separating access and outright influence has always been thin. In politics, access is power.

As legislative deadlines approach, for example, lobbyists line up outside legislative chambers in the hope of getting 10 minutes with the overwhelmed legislators. They hand their business cards to the pages, who carry the notes onto the floor. There, the legislators decide who they will see and who will get the "Sorry, it's just too busy now" response. Even when there's no hint of an "I contributed--now you vote" arrangement, the ability to get two minutes to "explain" your position on this or that bill is real power.

For these reasons, the recent conviction of former state Sen. Paul B. Carpenter--the second guilty verdict growing out of the FBI's Sacramento sting operation--sends some precedent-setting signals. By convicting Carpenter of selling access--as opposed to just votes--the jury was drawing new lines in the political sand, defining as unacceptable what many may have once considered acceptable. At minimum, the jurors were suggesting that elected officials must take greater care not to favor--even in terms of personal availability--contributors over non-contributors.

Even if such a warning becomes more an ethical standard than an enforceable law, the Carpenter conviction may serve to focus media and public attention on some of the most pervasive, if less visible, forms of political corruption.

Most corruption stories zero in on the search for a "smoking gun"--lobbyist gives legislator $5,000 in exchange for legislator's vote. But most examples of political corruption take far more subtle, but no less dangerous, forms than the smoking-gun analogy suggests. They involve the constant bending of ethical boundaries by large numbers rather than the unquestioned crossing of the lines by small numbers.

As a result, it is wiser--and, in terms of prevention, more profitable--to envision political corruption as a systemic disease capable of undercutting the rules of the political game rather than as a psychological disease infecting only individual players. What a political system will not long survive are widespread pressures that encourage large numbers of reasonably honorable players to undertake dishonorable activities. Put another way, a system may be able to withstand a few individuals occasionally selling access. It will not long withstand many individuals selling access.

Such widespread unethical activity does more than undermine the public standing of government institutions. It frequently renders them powerless to address and resolve critical public policy issues. Most pressure on elected officials comes from special interests protecting special needs. Too much pressure from too many interests results in political stalemate. As founding Common Cause Chairman John Gardner said, the decision-making playing field comes to resemble a board of checkers, with each special interest placing a thumb on, and immobilizing, one checker. Ultimately, all the checkers are covered.

For some years now, California's political process has been at just such a breaking point. There have been too many pressures on too many legislators to cross ethical boundary lines too often. Government has continued to grow in scope and power, increasing the numbers of organized entities with greater need and will to influence the process. Campaign costs have skyrocketed, creating a dangerous but almost unavoidable attraction between the financial needs of elected officials and the designs of private interests.

To its credit, the Legislature has made some effort to reduce these pressures. Last year, it placed on the ballot a constitutional amendment, approved in June, that, among other things, bans honoraria, closes the "revolving door" between public and private service and tightens conflict-of-interest rules.

But the Legislature, as a whole, has consistently rejected the most critical reform, that most directly addresses the systemic nature of political corruption. California's campaign-finance system continues to force virtually all candidates--even the most honorable--to stretch the ethical margins to the breaking point. The endless search for special-interest contributions often poses a play-the-game-or-lose scenario for candidates, and that choice can be hard.

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