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The Republic of Virtue

How We Tried to Ban Corruption, Failed, and What We Can Do About It

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Publication Details

Hardcover / 272 pages
ISBN: 9781594039706
AVAILABLE: 11/28/2017

The Republic of Virtue
How We Tried to Ban Corruption, Failed, and What We Can Do About It

Public corruption is the silent killer of our economy. We’ve spawned the thickest network of patronage and influence ever seen in any country, a crony capitalism in which business partners with government and transfers wealth from the poor to the rich. This is a betrayal of the Framers’ vision for America, and of the Constitution they saw as an anticorruption covenant. Most Americans get it, and this explains the otherwise improbable rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

When a country is corrupt, legislative efforts to make things better can actually make them worse. That’s what has happened with our campaign finance laws, says the conservative, and not entirely without reason. We’ve criminalized political speech and sent the message that it’s unsafe to get involved in politics without a lawyer at one’s side, while donor disclosure requirements have unleashed Internet mobs against political opponents.

We’d be better off without any of our existing campaign finance laws, Buckley argues in this provocative book. They’re a net with the curious feature that the big fish swim through safely while the little fish are caught, or those with the wrong political beliefs. Our current laws should be replaced by a different set focused on crony capitalism and the nexus of legislators and lobbyists that prey on our economy.

About the Author

F.H. Buckley is a Foundation Professor at George Mason University’s Scalia School of Law. He is a frequent media guest and has appeared on Morning Joe, CNN, The Rush Limbaugh Show, C‑SPAN, NPR and numerous other outlets.

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For foreign investors, America is always a good bet, and that’s especially true when they come from corrupt countries, as Kambir Abdul Rahman and Yassir Habib did.

Together the two formed Abdul Enterprises and deposited a million dollars in Chase Manhattan Bank to give themselves credibility. Then they hired Mel- vin Weinberg to approach American politicians for their support. If this is beginning to sound familiar, that’s because it’s the Abscam sting of 1978–80, and the basis for the 2013 lm American Hustle.

Kambir Abdul Rahman and Yassir Habib didn’t exist. The entire operation was an FBI plan to entrap corrupt politicians, and before it was over it led to the conviction of six U.S. congressmen as well as Senator Harrison Williams (D-NJ). Melvin Weinberg was all too real, an elementary school dropout and ne’er-do-well who once took $10,000 from a doctor on a promise to kill his wife and then simply kept the money without doing the job. He subsequently moved on to bigger stings, making $500,000 a year and never paying income tax. In time the feds caught up with him, and after being convict- ed of wire fraud he agreed to work for the FBI to entrap corrupt politicians. Beginning with low-level New Jersey pols, he quickly moved up to Washington officials as word spread that he had money to hand out. The congressman he caught in his web was Michael Myers (D-NJ), who was persuaded to introduce a private bill that would have permitted “Rahman” and “Habib” to remain in the United States. “I’m no Boy Scout,” he told Weinberg. Truer words were never spoken, but Myers might have been less candid had he known that he was being taped and the FBI was listening in.

It made for a good movie, but it was only garden-variety corruption, where public officials take money under the table in exchange for an official act and are sentenced to jail. In such cases, the FBI and the local police seem entirely up to the job of ferreting out the grifter, the pol on the take. What they miss are the nudges and winks that fall short of an official act, the way in which campaign donors and lobbyists support candidates and thereafter enjoy a privileged relationship with them. The donors and lobbyists will expect to have their calls returned and their opinions respected, and that’s not a crime. “Ingratiation and access . . . are not corruption,” ruled Justice Kennedy in Citizens United. In a subsequent case, Chief Justice Roberts took it one step further. There’s nothing wrong with campaign donors not only gaining access but expecting that the officials they support will respond to their interests, he thought. Rather, it’s “a central feature of democracy.”That sounds like a heavy dose of realism.

There are worse things in the annals of government than donors who influence elected officials. But that isn’t an endorsement of America’s pay-for-play networks, in which officials exchange public favors for campaign contributions, book contracts, media hires, charitable gifts, and the like. Then we get the shady dealings of Bill and Hillary Clinton that were detailed by Peter Schweizer in Clinton Cash.

What “ingratiation and access” might look like became clear from Clinton Foundation emails to the State Department, made public only after protracted Freedom of Information Act litigation forced their disclosure. In 2009, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the crown prince of Bahrain, sought a private meeting with Hillary Clinton, the newly appointed secretary of state. The request went through normal diplomatic channels, but that didn’t work. Bahrain wasn’t on the State Department’s best-friends list, and little wonder, since Human Rights Watch says that the little sheikdom regularly practices torture and that its human rights record is “dismal.” Nothing daunted, the crown prince turned to the Clinton Foundation, which had received $32 million from him. The foundation’s chief executive, Doug Band, then reached out to Huma Abedin, Mrs. Clinton’s chief aide. The two were so close that Clinton saw Huma as her surrogate daughter (but would demote her to “one of my staffers” after the Anthony Weiner scandal broke). Abedin’s job at the State Department included taking care of “Clinton family matters,” and while working at State she was also on retainer with both the Clinton Foundation and Band’s advisory rm.6 And when Band wrote her, “Cp of Bahrein in tomorrow to Friday Ask- ing to see Good friend of ours,” that did the trick. Secretary Clinton met with the prince, and then, between 2010 and 2012, Clinton’s State Department approved major arms sales to Bahrain, including chemical weapons that would be used to crush pro-democracy protests.

In another case, Secretary Clinton brokered a deal that helped the Swiss banking giant UBS, which the IRS had sued to force disclosure of the names of the 52,000 Americans with secret bank accounts. UBS had stalled on releasing the names, pleading that this would violate Swiss secrecy laws. Within months of taking office Clinton took the unusual step of personally announcing that UBS would have to turn over the names of only 4,500 depositors. Thereafter, UBS donations to the Clinton Foundation swelled: from $60,000 by the end of 2008, to a total of $600,000 at the end of 2014. The bank also made a $32 million donation to the foundation’s inner-city loan program, and paid Bill Clinton $1.5 million to participate in a series of question-and-answer sessions with a UBS executive. Secretaries of state are sometimes called on to tout major U.S. businesses, but this was a foreign corporation, and a bank at that.

In surveying the pattern of fees and donations to the Clinton Foundation, Schweizer suggested that the Clintons had put America’s foreign policy up for sale. The foreign countries that supported the foundation, many of them human rights abusers such as Saudi Arabia, were presumably more interested in seeking Secretary Clinton’s favor than in foundation issues such as empowering women and improving LGBT rights. And if it was favors they wanted, favors they got. Foreign dignitaries, such as Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, were more likely to score a meeting with Secretary Clinton if they supported the foundation, and this was true of private individuals as well. More than half the private people who met with her were foundation donors, either personally or through their businesses. Eighty- five private donors in all gave a total of $156 million.

That’s a lot of money, but some donors seemed to get their money’s worth. In one example, Hillary Clinton’s State Department approved the transfer of 20 percent of U.S. uranium production capacity to the Russian government at the same time that businessmen involved in the transfer donated $145 million to the Clinton Foundation. Simply a coincidence, claimed Clinton, who said she wasn’t aware of what was happening. Another foundation donor, Rajiv Fernando, a securities trader, was appointed to the International Security Advisory Board, which provides the State Department with advice on arms control, disarmament, nonproliferation, and international security. Its members typically include past cabinet secretaries, nuclear scientists and distinguished diplomats. They have access to the most secret government information, and none of the others had a clue what Fernando was doing there. When ABC News started asking questions about him, Fernando promptly resigned and the State Department stone- walled requests for information about how he was appointed.

All of this looked very much like a quid pro quo, a contribution to the Clinton Foundation (the quid) in return for a government favor (the quo). There isn’t direct evidence of a bribe, however, but only a suspicious pattern of favors granted against contributions given. So Clinton loyalists say it’s not proved, it’s all innuendo. But in such cases it’s never really proved, unless somebody is wired or the phones are tapped, and even those measures don’t catch the pattern of reciprocal gifts that make up the pay-for-play networks of corruption. As it is, we are permitted to wonder if we’d have learned more about corrupt dealings had Hillary Clinton not taken the extraordinary step of wiping her private emails from her hard drive with a software program from a company that afterward boasted it had “stifled” the FBI’s investigation of Clinton.

In a very short time, the Clinton Foundation had become fabulously wealthy. It took in $2 billion, with a significant bump after Hillary became secretary of state. Part of this came from speaking fees, $150 million between 2001, when Bill Clinton left the White House, and 2015.14 Often the speeches were made in Third World dictatorships. Speaking fees for former presidents generally decline over time, but Bill Clinton’s fees doubled or tripled after his wife became secretary of state. In one case, he declined to speak at a charity devoted to build- ing schools in countries devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami unless he was paid $500,000. That was a quarter of what the event brought in, and it would have been enough to build ten preschools in Indonesia.15 When Hillary Clinton left office as secretary of state, she got into the act. After she quoted a fee of $300,000 for a speech, UCLA officials asked whether they might get a reduced rate as a public university. That was the special university rate, they were told.

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