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D.C. Scandal Points the Way to Legalized Corruption

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Members of the Supreme Court and other innocents who think we needn't worry too much about the way money is being thrown around in politics these days might want to pay attention to what's been happening lately to Washington, D.C.'s local government.

Since January, two city councilmen have pleaded guilty to charges including embezzlement, tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations. And this week, came revelations that Jeffrey Thompson, a local businessman whose managed health care firm holds a city contract worth more than $300 million, secretly donated $653,000 to a "shadow" campaign dedicated to defeating former Mayor Adrian Fenty and installing Vincent C. Gray in his place.

Gray is now mayor and insists he knew nothing of the corruption around him. Meanwhile, prosecutors continue to sniff around the council and Gray's 2010 campaign and there are hints of charges to come.

It's a sad story for Washingtonians, who enjoyed 12 relatively scandal-free years under Fenty and former Mayor Tony Williams.

It's also a cautionary tale about the corrupting power of secret money in politics and how the erosion of our campaign finance laws has made it easier for that power to be exercised.

The Washington Post reports that Thompson's secret donations were used to purchase yard signs, T-shirts, umbrellas, banners, lapel stickers, posters, consultants, canvassers, drivers, laptop computers, radios and a public-address system delivered to but apparently not accounted for by the Gray campaign.

Thompson reportedly wanted to keep his spending secret because he feared that Fenty -- if somehow reelected -- would punish him by taking away his fat city contract. It's reasonable to ask whether he also figured his generosity would work to his benefit if Gray emerged victorious, which of course is what happened.

Thompson's spending was plainly prohibited by D.C. law, which recognizes that such large donations create a tremendous incentive for corruption. After all, if someone gave you $600,000-plus in goods or services, wouldn't you be inclined to do something nice for him or her in return?

But suppose that instead of secretly delivering all those goodies to the Gray camp, Thompson had secretly put his money into a tax-exempt 501 (c)(4) "social welfare" organization that then funneled it to a Super PAC which spent in exactly the same way, independent of Gray's organization. Then suppose that after the election, or even before, Thompson had quietly let Gray know of his generosity.

That, thanks to the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United, would have been perfectly legal. Operating independently of the Gray campaign and under cover of the tax laws, Thompson could have spent as much as he wanted -- in secret. The public would have been totally in the dark about who was trying to buy the election and what the mystery donor had at stake in the way of city contracts.

And once in office, Gray would have had plenty of opportunities to find ways to repay his secret Santa.

This scenario is unfolding, or at least is free to unfold, in campaigns across the country this fall. Only the hopelessly naïve can seriously doubt that it will.