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Politics & Government

Where Is The Line Between Political Scandal And Corruption?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, one leading Kenyan author came out on his 43rd birthday in response to Africa's growing homophobia. We'll speak to Binyavanga Wainaina about his article "I am a homosexual, mum." But first, we focus on politics in this country, in particular, what happens when state politicians make national headlines for corruption scandals. Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife now face federal charges of illegally accepting more than $150,000 in cash and gifts from a wealthy businessman.

Then there's New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. He's accused of withholding storm recovery money from a town in his state for political reasons. That's on top of the so-called Bridgegate scandal. And Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, she's in a little hot water for embellishing her personal biography. So to talk more about this, we have Wayne Slater, senior political writer for the Dallas Morning News. He joins us from station KUT in Austin. And also, Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times. She's here in Washington, D.C. Welcome to both of you.


WAYNE SLATER: Good to be with you.

HEADLEE: Can I just ask first what constitutes a corruption scandal? At what point does something go from just being maybe a minor scandal or an oopsy and becomes corruption?

SWEET: When you get caught.


SLATER: I think, you know, one of the elements almost always has to be, is it something that is surprising to a voter? And, geewhiz, how can you be surprised by what happens in politics these days? But more fundamentally, does the voter think it affects them in some way, or have they been betrayed in some way? And that is when it becomes damaging.

HEADLEE: All right, we're going to go a little further into these three that I mentioned already. But just real quickly, let me ask you on each of them. Wendy Davis, does that qualify as corruption?

SWEET: No, and...

SLATER: Absolutely not.


SLATER: Go ahead.

SWEET: No, and that's why, in this conversation, we should make a distinction. Somebody who embellishes their background may make a political mistake. But I don't think it does a massive disservice to then say somebody is corrupt because in all seriousness, I have reported about Chicago and Illinois political figures for years. And this is quite serious because a lot of people I have covered have gone to prison and/or have been accused of crimes. That means usually stealing, bribery, ghost payrolling. Embellishing your resume is a personal shortcoming, not a crime.

HEADLEE: All right, so, Wayne, how about Chris Christie? Corruption?

SLATER: Semi-corruption. He's not stealing any money, clearly. It's personal ambition. The real problem for Christie is that this episode reinforces a destructive narrative, a narrative that can - if he pictures himself as strong, is helpful, if he's pictured as a bully...

HEADLEE: It's not.

SLATER: ...Which is what we're seeing here, it's not. So it's not corruption, per se. It is a damaging personal attribute that can undo him.

HEADLEE: OK. So let's get to the third one, which again, we should be clear. He's charged with illegally accepting more than $150,000 in cash and gifts. Of course, former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife. Corruption, Lynn?

SWEET: I don't know why you have to be so intent on labeling something corrupt since that's a term. We know he's been - it's pretty serious just to know what - he hasn't disputed the facts that he and his wife have taken money from a supporter. Now whether or not it crosses a legal line of the federal laws of what he did - you know, that's what the federal government is accusing of is crossing that line. You have to keep continuing to make a distinction between - I mean, clearly somebody - he's accused of a federal crime. That speaks for itself. But the political problem already exists. It's never good for a political figure and a spouse to be accused of taking money for gifts and to sustain a lavish lifestyle from somebody that does business before the government.

HEADLEE: Well, let me go back to you then, Wayne. And first, if you're just joining us, we're talking about what happens when state politicians get caught in national corruption scandals. Our guests are Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times, you just heard, and Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News. So, Wayne, what about Chris Christie? Does this - will this possibly tank his political future? Is he no longer a viable 2016 presidential candidate?

SLATER: Oh, he's still a viable 2016 presidential candidate. Can it tank his future? Yeah, if there are more revelations. Every campaign establishes and perpetuates a political narrative. Who is your candidate? In the case of Christie, being tough and outspoken has been part of the positive part of his candidacy. If there are more episodes - first, in the event that anything that he said in that extended two-hour news conference turns out to be untrue, that in fact he did know something, his career I think is over.

But let's assume that doesn't happen. Are there future episodes that reinforce the narrative - he punches down people who are beneath him, teachers and regular schleps among the voters, that he's not just mean but a real bully and vindictive? If we see episodes of that - and more importantly, if a year from now on the campaign trail he is tired and we in the press have goaded him some way into lashing out and appearing on camera to look like the bully boy that his critics suggest, he is - then he's got a problem.

HEADLEE: And you're speaking about the press conference he gave addressing the Bridgegate scandal.

SLATER: Right.

HEADLEE: Lynn, I mean, you've been in Illinois. You've covered a number of governors. And, clearly, Rod Blagojevich, you've gotten in a lot of trouble. Is there a possibility for a state politician to come back from a real corruption scandal? Or once they're accused and it's proven, is it over?

SWEET: First, a - just a very quick comment on Chris Christie. I just want to say that - to underscore so much of what Wayne is saying - that a lot really depends on if the scandal touches Governor Christie. If it does not, he can go on. And probably the scandal then did him a favor because it might make him a little less bombastic. But what his aides are accused of doing, deliberately abusing - abuse of power, that is something that may have broken some state or federal law. But moving on to your question about state officials and local officials, again, I come from an environment that one researcher at the University of Illinois called the most corrupt in the nation, with a string of city, county and state officials who regularly get in trouble. The majority do not. But do people come back? Sure, but maybe not in the same way. If you do serve your time and you come back, people are willing to give you another look. Now can you make a political comeback? That is far more difficult. Former Governor George Ryan, he just got out of federal prison recently.

And, you know, there's no way he would make a comeback. But now he's much older. And Rod Blagojevich is serving a 14-year sentence. So I think he would be hard-pressed to have a comeback. Now the one figure I covered who I think may have some kind of a chance, very much depending, is former lawmaker Jesse Jackson Jr. He's in prison now for the greediest of greedy situations. He pled guilty, a year ago February, along with his wife, an alderman, in just a terrible scandal where they just gobbled up campaign money to pay for personal living expenses, very lavish ones at that. You know, maybe in the years to come - he's young. His sentence is short. There may be some potential for a comeback. So I wouldn't rule it out.

HEADLEE: Wayne, I wonder if - as soon as somebody starts to get any kind of national name or national profile - and very often, that's when some of these revelations come out - is it simply because of the intense attention? Does suddenly media perhaps begin goading somebody like Chris Christie? Do they then begin digging into their background in a way that they wouldn't if they were just a state or local official?

SLATER: Yeah, I mean, I think that's absolutely true. We saw that with George Bush. Now maybe we're all a bunch of lazy reporters in Texas following him as governor. Once he stepped on the presidential stage, the intensity, the scrutiny became significantly greater so that when he said anything that seemed to be unusual, he seemed to, you know - misspeak some word, it fit into a narrative - he's a dumb guy. But I look at these other cases - David Vitter, Mark Sanford - these are examples of state figures who have come back from political scandal - sex scandals. Their own voters have decided in that context, they're OK. The moment you step to the next stage - from local to statewide, statewide to presidential - the intensity of that scrutiny points up every detail and peccadillo, whether they're important or not.

HEADLEE: You mentioned David Vitter who was a former congressman and senator from Louisiana. And Mark Sanford, of course, former governor, and then now is back in office for...

SLATER: After the Appalachian Trail.

HEADLEE: That's right. For South Carolina. You know, Lynn, I wonder - and I want to be careful in how I ask this question. You both have alluded to it to a certain extent. Being in politics sometimes requires bending rules here and there. And some people have mentioned that it's so hard to raise the kind of money that it requires to run a successful national campaign that sometimes they get caught up in the rush and the pressure, right? So to a certain extent, is some of what's required for politics a little bit of rule bending? Is that part of the job?

SWEET: No, it's not. I think - so there are many approaches to political fundraising. And at the Sun-Times, we have decades of stories of people who go right up to the line - people who might be big fundraisers who get appointed through the years to state boards and commissions. President Obama, as President Bush and President Clinton have appointed top fundraisers to committees, to panels, to seats on the Kennedy Center board. The very biggest ones get plum ambassadorships. That is not illegal. You could not like the practice.

As a reporter, I don't like it. I'm not crazy about it. But sometimes, you just have to take different situations. One of the figures involved in the Rob Blagojevich scandal actually was a big fundraiser who was involved in getting favors from government and government contracts. That clearly is over the line. But you don't have to and you shouldn't, and people shouldn't think that running for office or being an elected official gives you license to break rules.

HEADLEE: That's Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times, and Wayne Slater, senior political writer for the Dallas Morning News. Thanks to you both of you.

SWEET: Thank you so much.

SLATER: Great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.