Last week, Philadelphia congressman Chaka Fattah was convicted of all 23 counts of public corruption (bribery, money-laundering, racketeering, fraud, and other things worthy of a Tony Soprano) with which he was charged. Fattah was in the midst of his 21st year as a member of Congress and before that he spent 11 years in Pennsylvania’s state legislature.
Once Fattah got elected to office he barely faced any opposition, routinely receiving roughly 90 percent of the votes in his re-election bids. More than anything else, he was known for his ability to bring home the bacon: he was responsible, and made the world know he was responsible, for bringing millions of dollars in federal money to his district, mostly for various private sector education programs run by community non-profit organizations.
What the people who voted for Fattah didn’t know was that he was taking a little off the top of those federal grants. The money went to a wide range of local, tax-exempt non-profit groups and they routinely funneled some of the money back to the congressman.
Sort of like a commission.
Corruption in public office is nothing new in this country, and as much as we hate to admit it, we’ll never entirely get rid of it. That should come as no surprise: no matter what the area of endeavor there will always be bad people who steal and cheat and there’s no inherent reason we should expect public officials to be any different.
But that doesn’t mean other public officials should be casual or indifferent when one of their peers gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
That’s why The Curmudgeon is appalled not only by the confirmation of Fattah’s corruption – he’d heard about this second-hand years ago from someone he considers a reliable source – but also by the reaction of other some public figures to the congressman’s conviction.
Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney, not exactly a favorite of The Curmudgeon, said the right words: “The jury spoke, and the criminal justice process went forward.” Even so, he wouldn’t say that Fattah should resign immediately. You have to wonder why.
Another disappointing, although hardly surprising reaction, came from a man named Bob Brady, himself a nine-term Philadelphia congressman who also has been chairman of the Democratic Party in the city for the past 30 years. Brady told the Philadelphia Inquirer that
I’ve known him 30 years. He’s done an awful lot of good for the city of Philadelphia, for the region, and for the United States. It’s a shame to have something like this happen.
Think about that statement for a moment: “It’s a shame to have something like this happens” – as if Fattah got hit by a bus or something else happened over which the poor guy had no control. It was nothing like that: the guy put his hand in the money drawer time after time after time, stealing money not only from the government but also from the organizations and causes for which it was intended. “It’s a shame to have something like this happen”? No, it’s a shame an elected official has such a warped view of what just happened.
Another disappointing reaction came from a former public official named Tom Massaro, someone The Curmudgeon has long respected and who once hired a young Fattah and was viewed as his mentor. Massaro told the Inquirer
A jury verdict that disdains that [public service] – well, it’s a 1 percent contravention to the other 99 percent.
As if all the good Fattah may have done justifies stealing public money or should be given consideration in weighing his guilt. The guy stole: he’s a thief. Did he do good things? Perhaps. But is he ultimately a thief? Abso-freaking-lutely.
The manner in which public figures just shrug off this kind of corruption is appalling. It speaks poorly of them and poorly of those of us who return these people to office. They seem to view such behavior as just one of the perks of the job and are more sad to see their friends get caught than they are outraged that their friends did something terribly wrong.
We see this all the time. Consider, for example, Hillary Clinton and this email business. Did she do something illegal? Probably not. Did she do something she knew was wrong? Of course she did. But after years and years and years as a public official and the wife of a public official she’s come to feel that the rules that apply to everyone else just don’t apply to her; that clearly runs in the family.
Republicans still like to complain about the 47 percent and a lot of working-class people like to complain about the sense of entitlement low-income people sometimes exhibit but some politicians can be the same way: they think that holding public office somehow entitles them to behave in ways that are outside the social and legal norms that govern the rest of us.
The Curmudgeon’s glad Fattah got caught and will pay for his crimes. Still, he worries that public officials who don’t think he did anything so wrong, or who think the law treated him too harshly because Fattah also did some good things in office, may see their own conduct through a similar lens and could be just an ambitious prosecutor away from a similar fate.
And for those of us who stubbornly insist on playing by the rules, that’s discouraging and disheartening.