Thursday, June 6, 2013

Scandals -- No, not the television show.

Both the state and national political news these days are filled with allegations of "scandal." That's no surprise. Those of us in the media love to cover political scandals because it's easier than talking about issues and the public is more interested.

Some of the "scandals" are more scandalous than others.

Let's start in Washington.

The scandal over the the deaths of four at our embassy in Benghazi, Libya is, and has been from the start, a partisan witch hunt. It's less serious than Clinton's Monicagate scandal that Republican irritated the country by fixating on for a years and half. Questions about if "act of terror" and "terrorism" mean the same thing are reminiscent of Clinton's ruminations on the definition of "is."

Who's responsible for Benghazi? The terrorist who conducted the attack. The furor over this issue is unworthy of Republicans. When 200 Marines that Ronald Reagan had placed in harm's way in Lebanon were killed by a suicide bomber, no one questioned Reagan's motives. Apparently, we don't even  hang together in a crisis anymore.

The "IRS Scandal," in which the IRS office responsible for making sure that organizations registered as tax exempt are really engaged in tax exempt activities used "Tea Party" and terms related to the tea party movement to identify who to audit, appears so far as a blunder rather than a scandal. The IRS workers were trying to streamline their process and they had been getting a lot of new applications from Tea Party sympathetic groups. If anyone there  had any political savvy, they would have added a couple of liberal buzz words, maybe :"choice "and "progressive" to the list. No one was kept from forming a group or expressing their opinions. At this point, it's not even clear that anyone was denied a tax exemption.. Despite the uproar on the right, this isn't the equivalent of the Nixon administration planning to use the IRS to "screw our political enemies."

The other Obama administration scandals are more serious.

The most serious is the administration's wire tapping of Associated Press employees in the quest to hunt down the source of a leak. I don't say this is the most serious because it affects the press, I say it because this is clearly a violation of Constitutional rights and existing law.

Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday that he "wasn't comfortable" approving the search warrant for the investigation. He should have been less comfortable, since it was clearly wrong, and ignoring his instincts ought to cost him a job.

The Obama administration had the chance to learn from the folly of previous administrations, but failed. The damage you do searching for a leaker is almost always greater than the harm of the leak itself.

The Obama administration is also clearly in the wrong on the latest scandal, that Verizon has given the National Security Agency full access to the phone records of all its customers. While this is a scandal, it isn't news. It started during the Busch administration.

Which doesn't let Obama off the hook. A lot of people voted for him because they thought he would be better on civil liberties issues, like collecting data on Americans, like torture, like Gitmo, like the Patriot Act, than Bush was. The fact that he's been the same on all these issues ranks with the failure to lock up the stock jobbers who caused the 2008 economic crash and to make sure it couldn't happen again,  as the biggest failure of the administration and will probably be seen as such by history.

Obama had the chance to be a great president. The Affordable Care Act, if the agents of plutocracy don't manage to steal it back from the people, will be the most important domestic achievement since Social Security. His handling of foreign policy, with one war ended, another winding down and a third amorphous "war on terror" being waged with drone attacks, is about as adept as any recent presidents.

But his failure to roll back the Bush civil liberties excesses or to tame an out-of-control financial system will compel history to find him mediocre at best.

At the time when the country needed a full-blooded populist  and champion of civil liberties, we got a hedger.

In Virginia, the scandals are easier to understand .. they're all about politicians taking money from folks who they help out with influence or legislation or favors.

The real shock is that we're having these kinds of scandals here. Virginia's ethics laws allow politicians to take any size bribe they want, as long as they report it. Apparently that requirement is too much for some.

Gov. Bob McDonnell didn't think he had to report a gift of $15,000 from Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams which went to pay the catering bill at his daughter's wedding. McDonnell  said it was a gift to  his daughter and didn't have to be reported.

Look, Bob McDonnell is not a neophyte, he spent more than a decade in the House of Delegates and four years as attorney general. He knew that not reporting the gift was violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the disclosure rules.

And then it turned out  even that story wasn't true. McDonnell signed the contract for catering, not his daughter, the check to pay for it was made payable to his wife, not his daughter.

There are also questions about an event that McDonnell and his wife hosted at the Governor's Mansion for Star Scientific, a tobacco supplement company.

The recent released emails about this event have caused me to believe it springs from a common problem that Republican administrations in Virginia run into -- they end up putting campaign kids into fairly important state offices. They don't have much choice, most adult Republicans aren't looking for a government job -- they don't like government. So you end up with people who known nothing about government in important positions. You  can see this in the emails,when old pro Tucker Martin gets wind of what's going on and questions the propriety, apparently too late. It also seems from the emails that the push for the event was coming from the first lady's staff.

This is serious. So serious that Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republicans 2013 candidate for governor, appointed a special prosecutor to look into it and a related scandal about the governor's mansion chef. You know that's the last thing Cuccinelli wanted to do. Because he's got his own Star Scientific problems. For one thing, he failed to report company stock that he owned  at a time when the company was involved with the state in litigation. He also didn't report $18,000 in gifts from the company until the were discovered by the press.

Cuccinelli would be best served if McDonnell's Star Scientific problems went away because, just as they are here, every time McDonnell's issues come up, so will Cunccinelli's.

Under Virginia's ridiculously lax ethics laws, the worst that will happen to either McDonnell or Cuccinelli is a slap-on-the-wrist fine.

Nobody is going to jail, unless federal prosecutors want to get involved.

But Cuccinelli might not be going to the Governor's Mansion either.


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