Tuesday, October 28, 2008

With Stevens Conviction, Hope for Democracy

The conviction of Sen. Ted Stevens says that democracy is still alive in America.

Representative democracy works only when the representatives have to answer to the people. If most of their income comes in the form of favors from business interests, that makes them effectively employees of those businesses, and then they cannot help but serve the interests of those businesses and fail to serve the interests of the public.

As long as we cannot prevent politicians from making money, we must at least know the sources of their income so that we can call them out on their conflicts of interest. That is the purpose of financial disclosure. Ted Stevens clearly did not want his conflicts of interest to be known. The trial of Stevens showed that he was receiving concessions on business transactions that easily exceeded his salary as a senator. In effect, he was not really a senator, but a lobbyist posing as a senator. The evidence showed that Stevens concealed a fortune in income, and that even after he knew what he was being investigated for, he still took actions to conceal his other income, his lobbying income, if you will.

Stevens’ reaction to the conviction show how badly this prosecution was needed. Stevens was visibly angry when the verdicts were read. Later, when he finally talked to the press, it was to issue thinly veiled threats to his fellow senators, Alaska voters, and the Justice Department. If Stevens really believes he is powerful enough to threaten the whole world from a jail cell, then he is not mentally or morally qualified to hold any position of responsibility.

The judge in this case might have been intimidated by the power of the defendant, as he seemed to do everything within his discretion to give the trial to the defense. The jurors, though, were having none of it. In returning such a quick and decisive verdict, they may give other Washington politicians reason to worry — to worry that the American people are sick of politicians who act as if they are above the law.

It is hard to get voters anywhere to vote for a convicted criminal, and Alaska voters are particularly known for their spirit of independence. By threatening the voters, Stevens reduced his already minimal chances of winning next week’s election. It is really too late for him to pull out of the election, but I hope he will have the decency and good sense to resign next week after the election is over.

There is much more to be done to restore the functioning of democracy in the United States. The conviction of Sen. Stevens is nevertheless a decisive step in that direction.