Monday, September 22, 2008

The Stevens Trial: What’s at Stake

When a pipeline company paid for a “renovation” that turned Sen. Ted Stevens’ Alaska cottage into a mansion, was it, in effect, a bribe? Or was this, as the senator has insisted, a perfectly normal business transaction in which nothing improper occurred? That question is at the heart of Sen. Stevens’ corruption trial, which begins today in Washington.

Laws require politicians to report transactions such as these so that the public can find out about possibly improper payments to politicians. Prosecutors say Sen. Stevens failed to report the renovations, along with a series of other similar transactions. Sen. Stevens says his financial disclosures were complete and accurate. A jury will decide.

What is at stake here is the ability of the government to make policy decisions without being unduly influenced by big-money commercial interests. If businesses can freely give millions of dollars in gifts to government decision-makers, it is hard for them to make decisions in the public interest. If much of their income depends on making decisions that benefit specific companies or industries, that is an economic incentive that is, in the long run, impossible to ignore.

But these gifts cannot be prevented if the companies providing them and the government officials receiving them are permitted to disguise them as unrelated business transactions. If I am a public official, and your company pays me half a million dollars for two acres of swamp land I happen to own, that could just be a bribe in disguise. That is why I would have to disclose that transaction. If it turns out that Sen. Stevens did not disclose a series of such thinly disguised gifts, then he has betrayed the public trust and ought to go to jail.