Friday, February 14, 2014

The Many Colors of Corruption | Last Word

Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott stirred up quite a controversy last week when he referred to political corruption in the Rio Grande Valley as resembling “third-world country practices that erode the social fabric of our communities and destroy Texans’ trust and confidence in government."

Business leaders and others in bustling cities such as Harlingen and McAllen were not amused at the suggestion that they are trapped in a third-world culture.

All the corrupt politicians he referenced were Hispanic, and the context suggested that the corruption somehow had to do with the influence of Mexican cartels.

The controversy reminds me of a question I was asked a dozen years ago during a talk to the Downtown Kiwanis Club of San Antonio.

The talk came shortly after a two-week period in which a dozen San Antonio politicos and associates were arrested on corruption charges by both the FBI and the Texas Rangers.

All but two were Hispanic.

Those two were African-American.

The question asked of by the Kiwanian: “Why don’t we just admit that the reason we have so much corruption in San Antonio is that we are so close to the Mexican border.”

There was tension in the room, despite the fact that the club had few Hispanics.

I paused a long moment, then said, “I find that question offensive.”

“The reason I find it offensive,” I added, “is that it pays no respect to my Irish ancestors.

There is nothing these Mexicans have done that they didn’t learn from the Irish.”

The point was not simply to be humorous.

It was that corruption is human. It is found everywhere, though in different flavors.

When I was a student at St. Mary’s University, a great government teacher named Bill Crane told us how Catholics and Protestants differed.

By Catholics, he meant recent Irish, Italian and Mexican immigrants.

The difference, he said, is that the Protestants who have been here longer understand the value of delayed gratification.

The more recent arrivals feel the need to cash in while in office.

The “Protestants” use government service to build resumes that let them cash in more handsomely – and legally – after they leave.

About the time of the arrests of that dirty dozen the company that is now AT&T hired former Mayor Howard Peak to be director of municipal affairs.

The company also hired former State Rep. Karyne Conley to be a Washington lobbyist, and former State Sen. John Montford as senior vice president of external affairs.

And USAA hired former County Judge and State Sen. Cyndi Krier as vice president for government relations.

Some had carried political water for the companies.

Others were hired simply for the skills they had developed and the contacts they had made.

Either way, such power hardly purifies the political system.

Such revolving door appointments aren’t the only ways perfectly legal practices, to quote Abbott, “erode the social fabric of our communities and destroy Texans’ trust and confidence in government."

A fresh example in the news:

Gov. Rick Perry appointed and the state Senate confirmed a vice president of one of the nation’s largest payday lending firms to head the commission charged with regulating that industry.

William White is vice president of Cash America, which was recently fined $19 million by federal authorities for abusive practices.

He is also chairman of the Texas Finance Commission.

Cash America and its fellow high-interest lenders give well more than $1 million every election cycle to Texas politicians and millions more to lobbyists.

Most of us citizens understand Mr. White’s appointment to be an example of corruption.

Greg Abbott will merely say that it’s legal.

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