Wednesday, September 27, 2023 Sep 27, 2023
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How to Bribe a Politician: Pay the Spouse

Handing out envelopes of cash is so passé. Today there's a simpler way to stuff their pockets.
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Linda Harper-Brown sits on the Texas House’s powerful transportation committee. She really, really liked the 2010 Mercedes E550 her husband, Bill, gave her to drive. He did not actually own the Mercedes he gave her, though. It was loaned to him, along with a 2004 Chevrolet Tahoe, by Durable Enterprises Equipment Ltd., a client of his accounting business. Coincidentally, Durable has received $12.3 million in state transportation contracts since 2007.

A bribe? Certainly not. The state representative may have failed to disclose that she was using a car provided by a state contractor (she, in fact, had her special State Official license plates put on both cars, even though she does not own them). However, her husband is incensed that anyone would find anything improper. He told the Dallas Morning News in June that his wife does not have to disclose the car because she does not own a part of his accounting business.

See? No bribe at all. Husbands and wives have nothing to do with one another.

In 2005, Congressman Pete Sessions introduced a bill that would enact a nationwide ban on municipally sponsored broadband services. His wife, Juanita, happened to be employed by Cingular (now AT&T) internet services. Coincidence? Of course.

As it turns out, 2005 was a good year to be wife of a congressman. Christine DeLay made $40,000 as an employee of U.S. Family Network, a charity set up by her husband, Tom DeLay, and funded almost entirely by clients of convicted bribery expert Jack Abramoff. (If you think her salary seems small, reports indicate her work consisted of making lists of congressional wives’ favorite charities. And she was being paid by his campaign committee at the same time.)

The fact is, of course, that Linda Harper-Brown does own part of her husband’s accounting firm. Sessions and Delay did benefit from their wives’ employment. Husbands and wives—especially husbands and wives in Texas—are beneficial owners of at least 50 percent of each other’s estates, unless prenuptial agreements have been made. So a payment to one is a payment to the other.

There is a flip side to this coin. What of the political spouse who has his or her own career? For years, accusations have been made that Ray Hutchison, husband of Kay Bailey, has benefited from her senatorial standing. But Hutchison was already the state’s leading bond attorney when late in life he married the one-day-to-be senator. He had already done the bonds for DFW Airport and been a long-time adviser to American Airlines. So was the senator’s dedication to helping American a result of her husband’s financial ties, as the accusers would have us believe, or was it a result of American’s being one of the largest private employers in North Texas? There’s a simple test to answer that question. If you or I were a senator from Texas, would we, too, be fervently supportive of American Airlines? Of course we would.

Let’s look at a harder case. Tanya Watkins is the wife of District Attorney Craig Watkins. By all accounts, her organizational skills and community networking drove his two campaigns for office, which led to his winning the office in 2006. In 2009, she established a political consulting service to help judges win the Democratic primary. She took in about $50,000 in fees. Should judges be paying the wife of the DA whose prosecutions they adjudicate? Tanya asked the state judicial ethics commission before she took on her judicial clients, and they saw nothing wrong with it. On reflection, neither do I. After all, the judges are paying her; she’s not paying the judges.

The case of Harper-Brown does not require that kind of reflection. It was corrupt, and it was meant to be corrupt. She took a bribe funneled through her husband, just as Tom DeLay took a bribe funneled through his wife.

The only way to stop it is to shut down the funnel. But how to do that without shutting down the legitimate careers of wives and husbands?
Sorry, Ray Hutchison, but the only answer is draconian. And that is to require that husbands and wives stop their careers on the day their spouses take office. “Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion,” said Shakespeare. That was not entirely fair to Caesar’s wife, who had no choice in the matter. But these ladies and gentlemen do have a choice. They do not have to run for office. Nor do we have to leave open such a gaping hole for them to profit from it if they win.

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