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|Written by Kendall R. Giberson|
|Wednesday, 02 September 2009 00:00|
On August 5, 2009, after a lengthy trial, Ottawa Mayor Larry O'Brien walked out of court after having been acquitted of two charges related to the practice of influence peddling. The case marked the latest in a series of recent high-profile cases where prominent politicians have run into legal issues for alleged actions taken during their time in office. The question that remains is will the public attention given to these events serve as a deterrent to similar actions in the future? Whether any indiscretions occurred or not, the accusations themselves unquestionably affect public opinion in such a way as to tarnish the trust factor of the politicians involved.
Influence peddling is a long-established political practice and has occurred in every kind of government at every level. Some would argue that the practices of lobbying, patronage appointments and the awarding of untendered contracts fall under this category of political favours as well. Why do the representatives of private sector ventures come out in support of one particular political party over another? Are these actions ideologically based? Obviously the reason is that the key people steering the ship believe that they can garner favours from one candidate over another in exchange for campaign contributions. It is very difficult for the elected official who is vying for re-election to say no to the people who financially supported his first campaign. Backroom deals, while morally questionable, are tolerated by the public as business as usual, as long as services are still provided and their basic needs are being met.
In times of financial downturn, such as in the current economic recession, actions like this are more likely to generate public outrage. Most people think that line is crossed when an elected official uses his or her office to personally enrich him or herself. For people who have the issue of economic uncertainty hanging over them, stories about elected officials lining their own pockets is intolerable. Here are a few of the biggest cases of alleged influence peddling at different levels of government:
Municipal: First, we look at Mr. O'Brien's case. To recap, he was accused of offering political rival Terry Kilrea a position at the National Parole Board and $30,000 to cover his election expenses if he dropped out of the 2006 mayoral race. Kilrea swore in an affidavit that O'Brien indicated to him that his connections to the federal Conservative Party would facilitate the deal.
Result: O'Brien was found not guilty of two counts contrary to the Criminal Code, but the charges could have an effect on his campaign when municipal elections take place in 2010.
Provincial: In Newfoundland and Labrador, former provincial Minister and Government House Leader Ed Byrne is currently in prison for committing fraud against the Crown. This stemmed from the Auditor General's office finding problems with some financial records regarding constituency allowances. Four former or then-current provincial members and one legislative employee were investigated, with Byrne having the highest-public profile. While only being permitted $31,500 for his constituency allowance in the 2003 and 2004 fiscal years, he claimed over $350,000 in expenses.
Result: Found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to repay $117,812 back to the Crown.
Federal: The Airbus Affair has been following former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney around ever since the RCMP made allegations that he accepted kickbacks from a representative of Airbus in exchange for Air Canada buying several planes from the company while he was in office. By 1997, no charges were laid, and Mulroney came to a settlement after filing a defamation suit against the government. Swiss bank account records later proved that Mulroney did in fact receive money from the man in question, Karlheinz Schreiber while he was Prime Minister. In 2008, the federal government created a commission to investigate the transactions, the results of which will be reported by Justice Jeffrey Oliphant by the end of 2009.
No article on recent political influence peddling would be complete without the mention of disgraced former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who was arrested on federal charges last year. One of the counts was related to an attempt to award Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat to the highest bidder. Not only was he removed from office by impeachment votes of 114-1 in the State House of Representatives and 59-0 in the State Senate, but he was convicted of influence peddling and selling gubernatorial appointments. Thse charges also involve using his position and influence over state financial agencies both to pressure private companies and to get favourable press coverage. There are ongoing investigations into Blagojevich's activities, so the extent of the corruption is still unknown.
Despite several political careers destroyed, the practice still continues. The Canadian government's recent amendment to the Elections Act has attempted to mitigate this practice a bit by limiting amounts of donations to parties and making corporate donations forbidden. We then run into the problem of people or businesses trying to circumvent the system by making donations in several different peoples' names and so forth.
We can remain optimistic that the extensive media coverage given to these misdeeds will force politicians to think twice before they are tempted by such offers, but that is unrealistic: the practice will continue to happen as long as people do not think that they will get caught. What we can expect is that people at the highest levels will exercise a bit more caution lest they embarrass themselves and their supporters, while people at the lower levels will continue to see what they can get away with.
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