Sen. Bob Menendez caught a lucky break on Thursday when the jury presiding over his corruption trial failed to come to a unanimous conclusion. The judge declared mistrial, increasing the odds substantially that the Democrat from New Jersey will get away with accepting blatant bribes and prizes from a rich friend in Florida. Not only does this conclusion throw the doors open on a raft of political muckery, it sends the message that there is virtually no way to jail these corrupt politicians for indulging in outrageously anti-democratic schemes. At a time when voters were hoping to “drain the swamp” of the leeches and financial schemes that prevent the will of the people from being implemented, Menendez’s non-verdict just pumped in another 100,000 gallons of boggy water.
This isn’t a purely Democrat Party phenomenon, of course. You can argue that the stage for this mistrial was set last year, when the Supreme Court decided that there was an extraordinarily restrictive set of circumstances and activities for which politicians could be held responsible for their corruption. That case was based off the trial of the former Republican governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, and it essentially made it almost impossible to hold corrupt politicians accountable. In a ScotusBlog entry at the time, Fred Wertheimer of Democracy21 said this:
The Supreme Court in this case leaned over backwards to protect officeholders and pretty much ignored the interests of citizens in honest government and the dangers of allowing officeholders to sell their office. The Court also ignored the right of citizens to “petition” officeholders without having to pay fees for assistance.
The Court’s decision opens the door to a corrupt “pay to play” culture in government so long as the official receiving the benefits does not make an actual government decision or take an official government action in response to the benefits given. But short of an official action, the Court has said that it is perfectly legal for an officeholder to exchange access and various types of other actions in return for financial benefits going into the officeholder’s pocket.
Conservative partisans at the time may have made excuses for McDonnell’s exoneration, but they were wrong. And the mistrial in this case – where a Democrat is being accused of doing essentially the same thing as McDonnell did – is the proof of that wrongness. We either have a set of laws that apply fairly to politicians from both parties, we apply them unequally, or we have the situation we appear to have now, where there ARE no laws. Just do whatever the hell you want and you can be assured that no one will hold you responsible.
We have enough concerns about money in politics without throwing the door wide open for people – whether or not they are direct constituents of a politician – to be allowed to essentially purchase access to various federal agencies. But until we get some much-needed clarification on what is and isn’t bribery – some clarification that actually makes sense in the logical world in which we all live – we’re only going to see this swamp grow murkier.