Columns » Ernest Dumas

Absolute corruption

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Lord Acton is having a long run of vindication. He is the one who wrote to a clergyman friend that power corrupts and absolute power, et cetera.

Last year, the voters ended Republican control of Congress in good measure because they had a sense that unfettered power had corrupted too many men at the top. The majority leader and two of his top congressional friends resigned amid corruption investigations and two of them went to prison. Tom DeLay awaits trial. The K Street-Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal soiled a score of Republican operatives from Congress to the White House.

But did you think that was the end of it? The revelations are just beginning, thanks to a few Republican prosecutors before they were canned, a few intrepid inspectors general in federal agencies who ignored the signals from the White House political office to lie doggo, the election of a Democratic majority and the restoration of the subpoena.

The disheartening developments come daily. The president of the World Bank, who was the chief architect of the president’s war in Iraq, faces ouster for using his power at the bank and in the administration to enrich his lover. Last week, two eminent Republican congressmen scurried to their leader to resign big committee posts after FBI agents raided their wives’ businesses and ahead of indictments. A House committee began delving into the president’s pet education programs after the inspector general in the department reported to the Justice Department that the people running the reading program were enriching their families and allies.

Let’s take up Paul Wolfowitz’s case first because it involves sex, or, less presumptuously, romance. When Bush made him president of the World Bank, Wolfowitz became the supervisor of his girl friend, Shaha Ali Riza, which isn’t permitted. So he used his connections to have her hired in a special job at the State Department making $193,000 but the World Bank still paid her salary, which made it tax-free. She earned more than Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Then she went to a private job, still on the World Bank’s tab.

Now the Pentagon’s inspector general discloses that in 2003, when Wolfowitz was still running the war from the Defense Department, he arranged for Riza, while she was working at the World Bank, to get a fat side assignment with a favored Pentagon contractor to travel to Iraq to advise the Provisional Authority on setting up a new Iraq government. The head of the interim Provisional Authority at the time says he knows of no advice Riza ever gave.

Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, in Henry Kissinger’s now clichéd phrase, and no one enjoyed power more than Wolfowitz, whose stratagems for taking the country to war and not winning it were embraced unquestioningly by the White House. Anything Wolfowitz did was right.

FBI agents Thursday raided the business belonging to Robert Renzi, wife of Rep. Rick Renzi of Arizona, and he promptly told the minority leader that he had better resign his seat on the House Intelligence Committee. Renzi, a favorite of DeLay, is the target of a two-pronged investigation of a land deal and legislation that he steered through Congress that benefited a major campaign contributor. Renzi offered to support a land-swap bill in exchange for the company buying an alfalfa field owned by his former business partner. The former partner funneled cash to the congressman through a family wine company. You may remember that the U.S. attorney for Arizona, who was spearheading the investigation, was one of those sacked in December by Alberto Gonzales.

Elsewhere last week, the FBI raided the business of the wife of Rep. John T. Doolittle of California as part of an investigation of his ties with Abramoff, the convicted lobbyist. Doolittle has already admitted obtaining money for a defense contractor involved in the bribery conviction of Rep. Duke Cunningham.

Federal agents are closing in on Rep. Gary G. Miller of California, who was involved in questionable land deals. He is accused of lying about a land sale that he did not pay taxes on. Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, is under investigation for his ties to Abramoff.

Just coincidentally, the U.S. attorneys in the California congressmen’s districts all left after the election.

The flap over the No Child Left Behind reading program is part of the same problem. According to an inspector general who tattled after the election, the director of the program tried to force states to use textbooks and programs sold by favored companies, including one that hired his wife as a consultant. He wrote a memo to an aide to come down hard on a competing bidder:

“They are trying to crash our party and we need to beat the * * * * out of them in front of all the other would-be party crashers who are standing on the front lawn waiting to see how we welcome these dirtbags,” the Reading First director wrote.

That is the language of unfettered power. When you know there can be no consequences, everything is all right, like making your girl friend rich off public funds, as Wolfowitz’s attorney argued this week. Greed becomes simple entitlement.

In a democracy, you enjoy the serenity of untrammeled power only a few years.

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