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Let’s Give Our Grandkids Governments They Can Believe In: Taming Corruption with Guardrails

Apr 11, 2023 | Ethics, Government, Michigan, Politics | 0 comments

In a sad end to a distinguished political career, Rick Johnson — a former speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives – pled guilty to accepting $110,000 in bribes to give inside information to a business applying to sell medical marijuana. After his legislative career, Johnson was appointed chair of a board that controlled licensing for marijuana dispensaries. The confidential information he shared helped the business owner obtain his license and start a very profitable business.

This type of corruption can lead to cynicism in the next generation. Cynicism can be corrosive for our governments and society because it makes voters apathetic and keeps many of the best people from participating in government. Who wants to vote if the system is rigged against you? Who wants to run for office if politics is a dirty business?

A discouraging level of public corruption

In this post, I would like to expand the conversation to public corruption. We can achieve a fair election district system – as Michigan has with its Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission – but what if the governors, judges, and legislators we elect owe more to special interests and “special friends” than they owe to their constituents?

Rick Johnson is the current face of public corruption in the Michigan news media. He is just one of many, though. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section reported that Michigan had 192 convictions for public corruption in the period 2012 – 2022.

What about corruption that’s perfectly legal?

In addition to criminal corruption, the Institute for Corruption Studies at the University of Illinois surveyed reporters who cover state politics in 2018 about “legal corruption.” This covers benefits that public officials provide to those individuals and groups that make legal campaign contributions and endorsements. The reporters responded that this form of payback by legislators was “moderately common” in Michigan.

In the last elections for state-wide offices, candidates and political committees spent $445 million in Michigan.  This money came from individuals or organizations with their own agendas. There is no telling what type of access and favors went to the major contributors with that much money in play.

Fighting corruption with guardrails

A little skepticism about our political system is probably a good thing. Few of our elected officials are out-and-out crooks, but neither are they angels. Most that I have known have mixed motives — certainly making the world a better place is one of them, but also vanity, ambition, and sometimes greed. We can help them be their best selves by putting incentives, guardrails, and monitoring systems in place to channel their ambition in an ethical direction.

Unfortunately, legislators in Michigan have not put ethics at the top of their agenda. Our systems for preventing, detecting, and punishing corruption have many gaps. The best work I have seen on this is by a national group called the Coalition for Integrity. They rated all states on the strength of their ethics systems in 2020 and found Michigan belonged in the bottom half. The state with the strongest system was Washington. Here are their ratings:

IssueMIWA
 Is there an ethics agency, with the authority to conduct its own investigations, including public hearings and subpoena power? 410
 Can the ethics agency apply sanction, including personnel actions, injunctions, and fines?5
 Are the members of the ethics agency protected from removal without cause?510
 Are elected and appointed executive branch officials and legislators prohibited from accepting gifts from high-risk sources (lobbyists, principals, government contractors) in an aggregate of $250 or more?310
 Are elected and appointed executive branch officials and legislators prohibited from accepting gifts from persons other than high-risk sources in an aggregate of $250 or more?310
 Are elected and appointed executive branch officials and legislators required to publicly disclose gifts they receive?5
 Does the state require reporting of contributors to independent spenders (political committees)?78
 Do legislators have to disclose client names as part of their financial disclosure reports?5
           Total2363

Take Action

If we want our grandchildren to have governments they can believe in, it’s time to tell our legislators we can do better. Legislators could make Michigan a top ten state for ethical government, but they won’t do it unless they hear it’s important to us, the voters.

If you agree it’s time to set up effective guardrails for our elected officials, I suggest you forward this post to your legislators and ask them to implement the recommendations from the Coalition for Integrity. You can contact your legislators through this link:

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