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Saturday, March 25, 2006,3:05 PM
Payola All Around Us
Nicholas Klassen

It starts with a police officer looking the other way in exchange for a bribe. Or a bureaucrat pocketing some cash to ensure that a particular application ends up on the top of the pile. Bottom feeders on the food chain, often simply trying to keep up in a competitive world. Many who engage in the practice will insist they haven’t done anything wrong: “How could I refuse a gift from someone who wanted to offer me a token of their appreciation?”

Such low-level corruption is all-too-familiar for the citizens of Zambia. Sure, they know that more serious graft happens in the upper echelons of government, but the lowly police officer is the one they have to deal with directly. They may be obliged to give a bribe at a roadblock. Or provide document processing “fees.” They’ll likely have to offer up gas money or taxi fare in order that the police can begin investigating. And to be fair, these “requests” are not unreasonable. The police genuinely don’t have money to fill up the gas tank. They work in tiny, barren offices with dilapidated furniture and equipment. Their children are hungry. Economic justice advocates at Zambia’s Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection estimate that that it costs the equivalent of about $380 per month to feed a family of six in the capital city of Lusaka. Police officers earn about $100-$200 a month. So to make up the difference, they engage in something Zambians commonly call “nichekeleko” – give me a share. That’s life in Zambia. It’s a matter of subsistence, not ethics. You’d do the same thing.

We commonly associate corrupt practices with developing countries. So we’re not surprised to hear Transparency International predict that the post- war reconstruction effort in Iraq could amount to “the biggest corruption scandal in history.” But who’s benefitting? Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Root and Brown overcharged the US occupation government in Iraq $108 million. Custer Battles bilked officials out of $50 million. American businessman Philip Bloom paid over $600,000 in kickbacks to US official Robert Stein in order to secure reconstruction contracts.

These crimes aren’t the isolated acts of a handful of wayward entrepreneurs. They are the predictable consequence of a US administration policy to award lucrative no-bid contracts – paid out in $100,000 plastic-wrapped bricks of cash – with little accountability. In an interview with Newsweek, former senior advisor to the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority Frank Willis compared Iraq to the “wild west” because the US government has either refused or stalled when called to look into fraud cases. Since only $4.1 billion of the $18.7 billion earmarked for reconstruction has been spent, Willis believes that “the corruption will only get worse.” Will American politicians – many of whom took great pleasure in scolding UN officials for failing to prevent the Iraq oil-for-food scandal – do anything about it?

It seems unlikely. After all, there’s enough corruption back in Washington to worry about.

Take Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, for example. On its surface, Abramoff’s story is a simple case of a prominent lobbyist accepting money from well-heeled clients in exchange for political decisions going in their favor. Business as usual, in other words. But what makes the story interesting isn’t the callousness he showed towards his clients – Native American gambling officials whom he referred to in emails as “monkeys,” “fucking troglodytes,” and “stupid idiots” – or the embarrassingly juvenile way he went about it – “I’d love us to get our mitts on that moolah!!” And the scandal wasn’t that Abramoff mixed money and politics. That’s old news. The real crime seems to be his excess. Republican Senator John McCain told a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing: “Even in this town, where huge sums are routinely paid as the price of political success, the figures are astonishing.” Indeed, before he agreed to a plea bargain, the crux of Abramoff’s defence was that his actions were perfectly routine by Washington’s standards. His lawyer issued a statement insisting that Abramoff was “being singled out by the media for actions that are commonplace in Washington and are totally proper.”

It’s true. Abramoff did exactly what any good lobbyist would do. And part of his success hinged on being best buds with Republican House Majority leader Tom DeLay – who is facing his own charges of influence-peddling and money laundering. It’s no great surprise that DeLay also maintains he has done nothing wrong. Remember, this is a man who declared that money “is not the root of all evil in politics. In fact, money is the lifeblood of politics.” So he’s a master at coming up with legislation that benefits his corporate donors and punishing fellow representatives who aren’t on side. Hence his nickname: “the Hammer.” Again, this wouldn’t be so bad if it were isolated to one individual, but DeLay heads arguably the most dominant political machine in American politics. He is one of the chief architects of the K Street Project, an effort to fill Washington’s most powerful trade groups, law firms, and lobbying organizations with conservative, activist Republicans – ideally former aides and confidants like Abramoff. This vast network fosters a sophisticated and pervasive culture of corruption and seasoned political reporter Jonathan Alter suggests that future historians will consider the period of DeLay’s “ruthless shakedown machine” as “the single most corrupt decade in the long and colorful history of the House of Representatives.”

It’s a damning statement, and it’s important to hold DeLay’s feet to the fire. But in focusing on the powerbrokers, we sometimes miss the more pervasive, if subtler, forms of structural corruption. Practices that are so woven into the fabric of the economy, we don’t immediately see the problem with them. Consider a recent development in the US medical field. Under a scheme called “gainsharing,” doctors are financially rewarded for using medical devices manufactured by the nation’s three largest orthopedic device companies. Surgeons who switch to one of the three brands get a 20 percent cut of any cost savings that result, and those who already used the brands get a 15 percent cut. The scheme’s originators insist that it will help drive down costs and therefore benefit everyone in the long run. But even if this were true, is it really a good idea for doctors to make operating room decisions based on how much they stand to benefit personally? The relationship between medical professionals and manufacturers is already too cozy. Some doctors enter into exclusivity contracts with certain companies where, in exchange for lucrative consulting fees, they promise to only use a particular manufacturer’s device. Sales reps who work according to commission are bound to flog the most pricey option. Perhaps it’s the for-profit nature of the American health care system that makes it so susceptible to kickbacks and other scams. Regardless, it should be enough to make us pause next time we look askance at the modest Third World police man collecting his share. Instead of judging “those” people, we would be well-served to look inward at the sophisticated payola schemes so fundamentally engrained in our own economies.
posted by R J Noriega
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