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Where the Tea Party and Occupy Movements See Corruption, John Roberts Sees Gratitude

04/07/2014 01:12 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2014
Bill Clark via Getty Images

As Francis Ford Coppola told the story, casino investor Hyman Roth was celebrating his birthday in Havana with his partners in crime when he regaled a skeptical Michael Corleone with his vision of the future that was at hand. "Here we are, protected, free to make our profits without Kefauver, the goddamn Justice Department and the F.B.I. ninety miles away, in partnership with a friendly government. Ninety miles! It's nothing! Just one small step, looking for a man who wants to be president of the United States, and having the cash to make it possible. Michael, we're bigger than U.S. Steel."

How times change.

This week, billionaire casino investor Sheldon Adelson is living the dream. Gone is the era when a Senator Estes Kefauver investigated the corrupting commingling of casino money and politics. Gone is the era when one had to, as in Coppola's story, blackmail a member of Congress to secure their support. Instead, politicians eagerly solicit Adelson's patronage and he can openly use the political clout he has acquired in Congress to advance his global gambling interests.

Adelson emerged in the public eye as a force in Republican politics when he contributed over $20 million to Newt Gingrich's campaign for president early in the 2012 campaign season. By the end of that year, Adelson's contributions in the presidential election cycle race reached $100 million. As he looks forward to 2016, Adelson's unabashed ambition is -- in Roth's words -- to find a man who wants to be president and use his cash to make it possible. In presidential politics today, Adelson is bigger than U.S. Steel. Or Goldman Sachs. Or Koch Industries.

Adelson's clout was on display last weekend at the Republican Jewish Coalition gathering just as the Supreme Court issued its ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC. In its 5-4 ruling, the Court took one more step to strip away limitations on political campaign contributions, as it removed limits on aggregate individual contributions to federal campaigns. The ruling in McCutcheon will not likely change much in terms of the flow of money into political races. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, whose database tracks political contributions, in the 2012 campaign cycle, only 646 people actually hit the aggregate contribution limits that were struck down by McCutcheon. Sheldon Adelson's tens of millions certainly were not affected by the federal limits. Nor were the super PACS or the "dark money" 501(c)4 non-profit groups that can now accept unlimited contributions without disclosing their source.

But in his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts once again derided the legal or public policy basis for campaign spending limits, as he not only affirmed the overriding importance of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech, but was dismissive of the corrupting influence of political money. "Government regulation may not target the general gratitude a candidate may feel toward those who support him or his allies, or the political access such support may afford...Any regulation must instead target what we have called 'quid pro quo' corruption or its appearance."

Roberts would appear to be either gallingly dishonest or shockingly disingenuous -- your choice probably betrays your political leanings -- given the juxtaposition of the Court ruling with the sight of Republican Presidential candidates falling all over themselves to garner Mr. Adelman's support and catering their every word to align with his views, and the descriptions of Senator Lindsay Graham and others introducing legislation drafted by Adelman's lobbyists to support Adelman's business interests.

Roberts may be right, and the Adelman situation may not reflect quid pro quo political corruption as the Chief Justice defines it. It may well be that those fawning Presidential aspirants are largely aligned with Adelman's interests, and that as a general matter large contributions to Democrats and Republicans alike follow the commitments of those politicians rather than drive them. I may not see the world that way, but the case can be made -- and surely Roberts insists on making it. From Roberts vantage point, Lindsay Graham is more than happy to lead the charge to illegalize online gambling as his expression of gratitude for the support that Adelson has shown him.

Roberts' standard that only a quid pro quo provides evidence of corruption essentially obviates the potential or need for campaign finance reform. After all, a quid pro quo is just another term for a bribe, and, as Roberts has observed, bribery is already illegal. Absent a provable quid pro quo, all of those industry lobbyists with wads of bundled political contributions do not drive public policy, they are simply evidence of a cycle of gratitude that -- in Roberts vision of the world -- is the mother's milk of politic.

The passing of Charles Keating this week is a reminder of another vision of our world. Keating was a leading man in the savings and loan crisis a quarter of a century ago, when he was the CEO of Lincoln Savings & Loan. Keating's famously contributed $1.3 million to the political campaigns of five members of Congress who in a show of gratitude sought to intervene on his behalf with federal bank regulators. In subsequent testimony before the House Banking Committee, Keating was asked by then Banking Committee Chairman Henry Gonzalez if he had expected something from those members of Congress in return for his $1.3 million. Only in our nation's capital would Keating's response "I would hope so, Congressman" have stunned the audience.

If the average American watching the Keating Five hearings on CNN was stunned, it was only by the honesty and forthrightness of Keating's statement. Of course Charles Keating wanted something for his $1.3 million. Of course the actions by the five members of Congress to support Keating's business were in exchange for his financial support. In what rational universe would it be otherwise, and would Keating be a competent CEO if he did not expect a return on his investment? This is not a complicated notion. It is the denial of the obvious that strains the imagination.

Gratitude is not the mother's milk of politics. It is money. For Hyman Roth, for Sheldon Adelson, and for the pantheon of players that circulate in our nation's capital, large political contributions are an essential part of transactional relationships that are expected to serve the interests of each party. If that cycle of interests does not constitute corruption in Roberts eyes, if the cycle of contributions and favors is too complex to meet his quid pro quo test, then perhaps there is a need to redefine the term. Any given check written to a political campaign account may not be able to be linked to a specific political action, but that does not mean that the relationship is not corrupt, or more specifically that then entire system has not been corrupted. The public understands this, and the 5-4 ruling in each of these Court decisions only further undermines faith in the integrity of the institution.

Chief Justice John Roberts persists in denying what to the broad swath of the American public is self-evident: Money is corrupting our politics and undermining public confidence in our political institutions. If it is a problem of the definition of corruption, then perhaps he should consider the assessment of Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward when the Court struggled with the definition of pornography. You may not be able to define it, but you know it when you see it.