Legalized Bribery?
by Senator John Marty
June 30, 2000

The typical person on the street thinks many big campaign contributions are nothing more than legalized bribery. People see that the system allows, and even encourages, large contributions from interests seeking favors from government. They recognize that many contributions are made with the hope or expectation that they will lead to more favorable treatment.

As troubling as our campaign finance system is, one would hope there are some limits to what contributors can get away with. Presumably donors could not offer money tied to a specific request (a quid pro quo). In fact, it is a felony in Minnesota to offer any benefit to a public officer with intent thereby to influence the person's performance of their powers or duties. But our campaign finance system has sunk so low that one might cross even that line with impunity.

Recently, one Minnesota businessman, who describes himself as "one of the largest contributors to the House (Republican) caucus," informed caucus members that he wanted the Speaker to step down or the caucus to "vote him out." The donor said he "will not contribute another cent," unless his request is honored, but he offered to help them get money if it is.

He wasn't shy about spelling out how much money is at stake: "Last (election) cycle, I estimate that the Freedom Club and its members contributed somewhere in the neighborhood of $500,000 to individual House candidates, the House caucus and independent expenditures. If (the Speaker) resigns, we have a chance to get some of that money back in the game. If he doesn't, most of it is gone."

"Get some of that money back in the game"? Offer a benefit to public officials with intent to influence them? This sounds like what our bribery law is supposed to prohibit.

I asked the county attorney to investigate, but was informed that based on the facts provided, they did not believe they could prove that any crime was committed, and that their office does not have the capacity to investigate such matters. The prosecutor casually mentioned that if this case were pursued they would be overwhelmed with complaints about numerous other lobbying situations that might violate the law. What an indictment of our system!

Not only is the contributor off the hook in the legal system, he is also unlikely to suffer in the political process. Politicians are accustomed to lobbyists and interest groups bearing gifts as they seek favors. And politicians tread lightly when dealing with potential donors - they need their money! The Speaker of the House, the very person under attack here, came to the donor's defense. Be gracious to the donor and he may open his checkbook again.

We should post a "Not for Sale" sign on the capitol and ban the special interest money. Until that time, apparently even bribery laws will not do much good.

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