Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Safavian found guilty

Refocusing attention on Republican corruption, a former Bush official has been found guilty in the Jack Abramoff probe.

A federal jury found former White House aide David H. Safavian guilty yesterday of lying and obstructing justice, making him the highest-ranking government official to be convicted in the spreading scandal involving disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Safavian, a former chief of staff of the General Services Administration, was convicted in U.S. District Court here of covering up his many efforts to assist Abramoff in acquiring two properties controlled by the GSA, and also of concealing facts about a lavish weeklong golf trip he took with Abramoff to Scotland and London in the summer of 2002.

He could get up to 20 years in prison, as well as a hefty fine.

It will be interesting to see how the various corruption scandals play out as we lurch toward the November elections. The Abramoff probe is sexy because it's a many-tentacled beast that helped bring down Tom DeLay and could yet ensnare other leading Republicans, notably Bob Ney. It's organized corruption that springs directly from Republican efforts to ramp up fundraising and both co-opt and embrace lobbyists.

The Democratic scandals, on the other hand, are a series of inidividual incidents. William Jefferson suspected of soliciting bribes; Alan Mollohan growing suspiciously wealthy in a very short time. It's personal greed, which speaks to the broadness of the "culture of corruption" on Capitol Hill but doesn't implicate the entire Democratic Party the way Abramoff implicates Republicans.

But will voters care? And should they? Is that a distinction without a difference? Will voters blame the parties or the individuals? Or might they decide "a pox on both your houses" and stay home?

I think the difference is important. Democrats aren't notably less corrupt per capita than Republicans, but in this case the corruption is concentrated in the Republican leadership. The Democratic leadership has many problems, but systemic corruption a la Abramoff isn't one of them.

One might argue that the GOP is simply more efficient and open about its ravenous pursuit of cash, but that's still a reason to prefer Democrats: they're simply too disorganized at the moment to manage truly harmful levels of greed.

As long as the Democrats feel corruption is a winning issue for them, it will have a salutory effect: they will police themselves more vigorously in order to retain that political leverage. And their efforts to spotlight Republican corruption will force some discipline on the GOP, as well as keeping the issue in the public eye.

It worked for the GOP in 1994, when they swept a sclerotic Democratic majority from power. In a demonstration of the truism that power corrupts, it is now the Democrats' turn to return the favor. The GOP, knowing the electoral power of the issue, managed to maintain its anticorruption discipline for several years; we can only hope that if the Democrats regain power in part because of an anticorruption platform, the same will hold true for them.

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