Saturday, January 25, 2020

Public officials who betray the public trust pay the price—so should the president

  A New Jersey official sentenced to 18 months in prison for scheming to punish a local mayor deemed not loyal enough to former Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ). A Kentucky agriculture commissioner sentenced to 21 months for using official funds for personal gain. A Pennsylvania state treasurer sentenced to 30 months for threatening two citizens if they did not help his gubernatorial campaign.

  Public officials who break the law face real consequences. The president should be no different.

  Between 1999 and 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) convicted 14,405 public officials—7,762 federal officials, 1,971 state officials, and 4,672 local officials—in public corruption cases. Most of these cases resulted in resignation, removal from office, and/or a prison sentence. President Donald Trump should be held accountable like any other elected official who broke the law.

  The case is clear: The president used the power of his office to withhold military aid from Ukraine in order to interfere in the 2020 election for his own political benefit. Trump, his chief of staff Mick Mulvaney (despite an attempt to walk back his initial statement), and his private lawyer Rudy Giuliani all admitted to elements of the offenses Trump is accused of. Mulvaney even said that this was standard operating procedure in this administration and there was “nothing wrong” with it. As many experts have argued, this was bribery, fraud, and a betrayal of his oath of office.

  On Tuesday, Pat Cipollone—President Trump’s defense lawyer—repeated this argument on the floor of the Senate saying, “The president has done absolutely nothing wrong.” Cipollone made this claim while also arguing that further witnesses should not be able to testify at the trial. In other words, the strategy of Trump’s legal team is to cover up his criminal conduct.

  When other elected officials corruptly abuse the power of their office, they are aggressively investigated, prosecuted, and often convicted. Two of the president’s closest allies recently learned this the hard way. The first two members of Congress to endorse Trump in the 2016 election both were convicted of crimes that violated the public’s trust. Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) was convicted for his role in an insider trading scheme he partially conducted on the White House lawn, and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) was convicted of stealing campaign contributions. They resigned, and they now face prison time. Collins was recently sentenced to 26 months in prison, while Hunter’s sentencing hearing is in March.

  The law does not discriminate. Whether someone is a police officer, a city council member, a mayor, a state legislator, a governor, or a member of Congress, they are accountable to the same laws put in place to ensure trust in public officials. Here are some examples of that justice in action:

  • Pennsylvania State Treasurer Rob McCord (D) was convicted of attempted extortion for threatening two business owners with economic harm using his authority as state treasurer if $125,000 worth of campaign contributions for a potential gubernatorial run were not received. His crimes, “federal investigators said, involve McCord’s heavy-handed attempts last spring to secure about $125,000 in contributions from a Philadelphia-area law firm and a western Pennsylvania property management company for his failed 2014 campaign for governor. McCord threatened both potential donors that he would use his power as treasurer to economically harm their businesses if they didn’t pony up, investigators said.” [PennLive, 2/17/15]

          Sentence: 30-month prison term [The DOJ, 8/28/2018]

  • Queens City Councilman Dan Halloran (R) was convicted of bribery and fraud, including taking bribes to get a Democrat on the Republican New York City mayoral ballot. “According to prosecutors, Mr. Halloran engaged in two schemes. In the first, he took $20,000—and expected to receive a total of $75,000—to help Mr. Smith secure a spot on the 2013 mayoral ticket as a Republican. Because he was a Democrat, Mr. Smith needed the approval of at least three Republican Party officials. Mr. Halloran negotiated bribes to be paid to three Republican party leaders to support Mr. Smith. In the second scheme, he received $15,000 in bribes for funneling about $80,000 in city money to a nonprofit.” [The New York Times, 3/5/2015]

          Sentence: 10-year prison term [The DOJ, 5/4/2015]

  • Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) quit after misusing campaign funds and allegedly forcing state employees to help cover up an affair. “Mr. Bentley quit in connection with a plea agreement on two misdemeanor charges: failing to file a major contribution report and knowingly converting campaign contributions to personal use.” Reports also surfaced of Bentley forcing state officials to help him cover up an affair, though he denied this. [The New York Times, 4/10/17]

          Sentence: 30-day suspended jail sentence, 12 months of probation, 100 hours of community service, and he can never run for public office again. [The Atlanta Journal Constitution, 4/10/17]

  • Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni (R) was convicted of fraud and conspiracy for causing traffic gridlock in Fort Lee after their mayor refused to endorse then Gov. Chris Christie. “Mr. Baroni ignored increasingly agitated phone, text and email messages from Mayor Mark J. Sokolich of Fort Lee—whose decision not to endorse Mr. Christie preceded the lane closings—about ‘an urgent matter of public safety,’ with emergency vehicles, school buses and commuters stuck in traffic.” [The New York Times, 11/4/2016]

          Sentence: 18-month prison term [The DOJ, 3/29/2017]; Baroni is currently appealing his conviction.

  • Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture Richie Farmer was convicted of spending public funds on guns, knives, wristwatches, and cigars for himself as well as giving “no-show jobs” to friends between 2004 and 2011. “The two counts to which Farmer admitted alleged he misappropriated public funds by putting three friends in no-show jobs and that he kept for his personal use a cache of leftover gifts—rifles, rifle cases, knives, wristwatches, gift cards and cigars—purchased for guests at a 2008 convention sponsored by the Department of Agriculture.” [USA Today, 1/14/2014]

          Sentence: 21-month prison term [USA Today, 1/14/2014]

  • New York State Sen. Carl Kruger (D) accepted more than $1 million in bribes from a top lobbyist, two hospital executives, and a health care consultant. “In return, he agreed to take official action to benefit them or their clients including sponsoring and supporting legislation, directing state grants and writing to state officials, prosecutors said.” [The New York Times, 4/27/2012]

          Sentence: 7-year prison term [The DOJ, 4/26/2012]

  • Pennsylvania House Speaker John Perzel (R) was convicted for being “the architect behind a scheme that spent more than $10 million of taxpayer money on sophisticated computer systems to track voters and voting patterns” for the Republican party, known as Computergate. “An influential former speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives was sentenced to up to five years in prison on Wednesday after admitting that he used public funds for a computerized election system to help Republicans win elections.” [Reuters, 3/21/2012]

          Sentence: 2-year-and-6-month prison term [PennLive 5/30/2018]

  • Louisiana Mayor Ray Nagin (D) was found guilty of bribery for taking more than $200,000 from businessmen looking for kickbacks. “The jury found he accepted cash, granite, travel and other things of value from city contractors Rodney Williams and Frank Fradella, and in turn used his influence as mayor to help them land city contracts. The jury also found that a $12,500 monthly consulting job Nagin landed through Fradella after his departure from City Hall in May 2010 amounted to a kickback for earlier favors.” [CNN, 2/14/2014]

          Sentence: 10-year prison term [USA Today, 7/9/2014]

  • Atlanta police officer Lucius Solomon accepted multiple bribes in exchange for protection of major cocaine dealers. “SOLOMON provided protection for what he believed to be multi-kilogram cocaine deals. For each deal, SOLOMON agreed to protect the people he thought were drug dealers in exchange for $2,000. On two of those occasions, SOLOMON was on duty, in uniform, and in his marked police vehicle when he provided the protection.” [The FBI, 12/6/2010]

          Sentence: 12-year prison term [The FBI, 12/6/2010]

  • Michael Grimm (R-NY) admitted to perjury and tax fraud. The congressman was indicted in 2014 on 20 counts involving tax fraud in connection with a Manhattan restaurant that he owned with others. He pleaded guilty to one count of felony tax fraud. Grimm also admitted he committed perjury in a lawsuit brought by some of the restaurant’s employees. [USA Today, 8/8/2018; The New York Times, 7/17/2015]

          Sentence: 8-month prison term [The New York Times, 7/17/2015]

  The president and his team have admitted to the very criminal conduct they are accused of and now are on a campaign to misinform and confuse the public about whether Trump’s actions were a crime. If any other official in government did what the president did, there seems to be no question that, at the very least, that official would have lost his or her job.

  About the authors: Will Ragland is the research director at the Center for American Progress. Ryan Koronowski is the director of special research projects at the Center.

  This article was published by the Center for American Progress.

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