Morris: Standing Up for the Corrupt
by Leo Morris
“Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me.” – Don Corleone, “The Godfather.”
Hoosiers owe the brave members of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents a vote of gratitude for making a courageous move that could bring needed reform to Indiana law.
The association is standing behind one of its own, a former Vigo County superintendent facing bribery charges for allegedly accepting concert tickets and meals from a vendor that did work for the school system. Prosecutors say Danny Tanoos was influenced to award $42 million worth of business to Energy Systems Group, which made a profit of $11 million, by the $100,000 or more gifted by the company to Tanoos or Vigo County School Corp.
Now, association members could have taken the coward’s way out by clearly and firmly distancing themselves from the allegations. After all, when average citizens hear that connected people seeking influence are presenting “gifts” to public officials, a different word probably comes to mind. And it’s not lagniappe. Best stay away from that kind of public image and present at least the appearance of sober propriety.
But, no, the association went the other way, filing an amicus curiae brief asking the court to dismiss the bribery charges because a conviction could “result in confusion” about what gifts public servants can receive, according to the Terre Haute Tribune-Star.
“The outcome of this case,” the brief said, “could have a transformative impact on how superintendents, and more broadly all public officials, interact with constituent and business consultants. A conviction under the current criminal charges would result in confusion and guesswork as to what conduct the Indiana bribery statute prohibits.”
How true, how true, and the brief is exactly right that this terrible confusion would affect all public officials, not just school superintendents. Imagine the horror. A faithful servant of the people goes about his normal business, accepting the small tokens of affection that are his due, just the way government officials have done ever since the Sumerians put the red tape in bureaucracy, and the next thing he knows the prison gates are slamming behind him.
Clearly, state law must be firmed up, the vagueness removed, the ambiguities replaced with bright guidelines. Officials must know precisely and unequivocally how much of a gift they can receive. Nothing less than exact dollar amounts will do.
If a contract is to be awarded for a highway, for example, or a courthouse addition or schoolhouse plumbing, the official could expect a percentage, say 2 percent, as sort of a finder’s fee. If the project were estimated to cost the government entity $10 million, a gratuity of $200,000 would be appropriate, and not a penny more. But if the project’s costs were to exceed projections, the official would not be able to bump up his fee. Everyone must make sacrifices for good government. In-kind contributions, such as sporting-event tickets, trips, fruit baskets and late-night visits from certain sex professionals, would be priced based on the prevailing local wage rate. That would keep the unions at bay.
Naturally there would have to be some kind of set-fee schedule for government services provided that do not involve projects and contracts, getting somebody’s cousin on the payroll, for example, or keeping somebody’s brother-in-law out of jail. Here, the state should probably make allowances for a little home rule, since local conditions might vary. Looking the other way on a drug deal might be worth more in Indianapolis than in Fort Wayne, and ignoring neighborhood code violations would certainly be more valuable in South Bend than Evansville.
State officials will have to be careful in specifying exactly who is allowed to offer gifts to government officials. It must be absolutely clear that only persons of influence – those who are able to both shape events and make our public servants’ lives more tolerable – qualify. Otherwise, every common truck driver and waitress will be trying to get a ticket fixed or an alley pothole filled for a paltry couple of hundred dollars. The whole system might collapse.
But this can be done, and it must be done. If our officials can’t escape the cloud of uncertainty over accepting gifts from those willing to be generous, how can we keep the brightest and most enterprising of them from fleeing to the private sector?
It’s true that we get what we pay for. Let’s make sure we always have the best government money can buy.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is this year’s winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.