The Buzz

It’s time to rethink the connection between ‘corrupt’ and ‘politician’

Stephen Dennis
Stephen Dennis

When you heard that former Grandview mayor Steve Dennis pleaded guilty to turning a generous donation to his nonprofit into $34,000 in personal spending money, the thought probably went through your mind: There goes another one. A pol getting rich quick just because he can.

We’ve had few high-profile convictions lately of elected officials around here. But as it turns out, Dennis is the exception, not the rule.

In fact, The New York Times recently took a nationwide look and concluded that the widely accepted connection between “corrupt” and “politician” is just another erroneous stereotype.

Between 1989 and 2011, for instance, Justice Department stats show that convictions of federal officials dropped 25 percent. Convictions of state officials spiked, but that was because of a one-time jump in 2011.

Kim Long, who wrote “The Almanac of Political Corruption, Scandals and Dirty Politics,”

told The Times that less than 1 percent of the almost 12,000 people who have ever served in Congress have been expelled, indicted or tried for crimes. That’s fewer than 120 folks.

Problem is, most of us don’t recognize it.

You hear about former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, recently indicted on fraud and conspiracy charges, and you think all pols are walking in the same footsteps. McDonnell allegedly accepted $165,000 in loans, vacations and gifts, including a Rolex and a shopping spree for his wife, from a favor-seeking businessman.

You hear about former House speakers in Missouri getting into one legal jam or another and you think the entire joint — all 163 members — is as crooked as the Big Muddy.

Not so.

There’s no proof — zero — that this is endemic of politicians, Long said.

Still, our pols hardly are as pure as fresh snow. Think of Jeff City and you can’t help but think of the “soft corruption” of massive gift giving to lawmakers, unlimited campaign donations and the tit for tat that marks so much of our government.

University of Virginia political scholar Larry Sabato insists there’s less corruption today than in the 1800s, thanks to disclosure laws and limits on gifts. Missouri, though, remains the exception with its stubborn refusal to limit the gift giving and to restore caps on political contributions.

Some perspective is needed, though. A gap exists between blatant lawbreaking and dubious ethics. In fact, most pols I’ve known are in it for exactly the right reasons.

Dennis, it turns out, is the guy out of place.