This material belongs to: Chicago Tribune.
I have no particular desire to see former Gov. Rod Blagojevich released early from his 14-year prison sentence. And despite claims about bias by U.S. District Judge James Zagel, as someone who testified in both of Blagojevich’s corruption trials I found Zagel to be consistently fair, objective and reasonable.
Nineteen Illinois politicians signed a letter asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review Blagojevich’s case — and while I don’t see Rod’s fate as an especially valuable use of the court’s time, I do agree that virtually everyone working at high levels of government and politics across the nation could use clearer guidance as to what is legal and what isn’t.
The petitioners argue that the court needs to “distinguish the lawful solicitation and donation of campaign contributions from criminal violations of federal extortion, bribery and fraud laws.”
They have a point. For as long as politicians are allowed to freely solicit money for their political campaigns, there is always going to be an intersection of campaign donations, taxpayer funds and government spending. Giving elected officials, their government staff, their campaign staff and donors abundantly clear rules and guidance can only help reduce corruption, change the social norms around pay-to-play politics (especially in Illinois, where it’s still seen as a cost of doing business), and give the taxpayers far more confidence that the system is corruption-free.
I see this frequently in my work as a venture capitalist. I founded a firm that works with and invests in startups in a variety of regulated industries. My company does business with virtually every state, every major city and the federal government, so I’ve seen how things work pretty much everywhere. Time after time, the entrenched interests our startups are disrupting try to use pay-to-play politics and campaign donations to stifle competition, limit innovation and preserve the status quo.
Pay-to-play politics is a potent threat to innovation, and the lack of clarity about what is allowed and what isn’t only makes things worse.
After leaving Illinois, I moved back to New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio spent much of his first term under federal and local investigation for alleged corruption, almost all of it stemming from allegedly providing favors, benefits, grants, jobs and contracts to donors. When it came time for de Blasio’s re-election, viable competitors were stuck on the sidelines, waiting for the outcome from the offices of the U.S. attorney and the Manhattan district attorney.
In February, both prosecutors issued an unprecedented statement saying they believed de Blasio and his team violated the letter and spirit of the law, but they lacked enough evidence to bring charges. That’s fine — the prosecutors were just doing their jobs the best they could.
But the standards that brought Blagojevich to trial in Illinois were very different and much tougher.
That doesn’t make sense. What’s corrupt in Illinois should be corrupt in New York and vice versa. And while the U.S. Supreme Court did address the definition of bribery when it reversed the corruption conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, I don’t know anyone in government or politics who would say they now clearly know what elected officials can and can’t do when it comes to donors.
If the Supreme Court wants to make the standard much, much stricter and rule that no one who receives government contracts, grants, loans or business of any kind can donate (either as an individual or a business), that would make a lot of sense. If the court wants to prohibit contributions from those types of donors within 12 or 24 months of an election, that would make sense. And if the justices want something else, that could be fine too.
Just make it clear. And make it universal, so staffers in Springfield, Sacramento, Calif., Washington, D.C., Boston, Denver, Atlanta, Detroit, New York and everywhere else can easily know what’s permissible and what isn’t.
Obviously, there’s a lot of nuance and gray in politics. That’s part of what makes it so interesting. But in this case, the nuance only leads to institutionalized corruption and mass confusion. It doesn’t matter if the court addresses this in the case of Blagojevich or someone else, but the need for better nationwide rules and clear guidance is abundant. They should act on it.