Politics & Policy

Pernicious Political Activities

(Vera Volkova/Dreamstime)

We are ruled by criminals.

Consider the case of Rodney Thompson, the school superintendent in Berkeley County, S.C., who is currently collecting a $168,714 salary while he awaits trial on a public-corruption charge related to the misuse of government resources for a political campaign.

The campaign in question was a referendum to raise taxes in order to facilitate more spending on schools — no surprise that the school managers were all-in behind it. Thompson has been indicted on a misdemeanor charge; the district’s press officer was indicted on a similar charge and then on a felony forgery charge — investigators say she doctored documents to mislead them. The interim superintendent serving while Thompson’s legal troubles are sorted out is under investigation in the affair as well.

Never forget: They do it for the children.

This sort of thing is as common as dirt. Conservative activists complain — and have produced evidence — that school personnel in Jefferson County, Colo., did exactly the same thing, using public resources to campaign for a tax hike, the purpose of which was to increase their paychecks and decrease their workloads. Other critics have raised questions about the district’s financial arrangements with a firm that supported the tax-hike campaign. Construction companies, as it turns out, adore government-school building projects.

In Connecticut, a Waterbury smoke shop was the locus of a federal conspiracy and election-law investigation related to the congressional campaign of Chris Donovan, a Democratic activist who had been speaker of the state house. His campaign finance director and a longtime aide have been convicted. The complaints against them included — this will not surprise you — the misuse of public resources for campaign purposes.

And so it goes.

These offenses may seem penny-ante, but they aren’t. This is not a case of “Technically, you’re not supposed to do that.” These are serious crimes. For good reason we have the Hatch Act — officially, “An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities” — and similar laws against using public resources for political purposes. If we allow the machinery of government itself to be hijacked for campaigning, then the state becomes a weapon to be wielded against our rulers’ rivals — and it ceases, therefore, to be legitimate. The real issue isn’t a few thousand dollars’ worth of salaried bureaucratic office time — they probably were not going to do anything useful with it, anyway — the issue is the aggravated molestation of democracy.

For good reason we have the Hatch Act — officially, “An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities” — and similar laws against using public resources for political purposes.

Self-service in government is corrosive.

It is worse when they have guns.

The invaluable Senator Chuck Grassley has been leading an investigation into the U.S. Marshals Service. Among other things, he suggests that director Stacia Hylton secured special treatment for a friend in the matter of a government contract, that the friend won the contract in spite of being unqualified, and that Hylton rewarded the underling who arranged this patronage with a promotion. In a separate matter, the Marshals Service is being investigated for — every police agency needs one — a secret surveillance program that is probably illegal.

And that is the point at which the theater begins.

“U.S. Marshals leader resigns amid scrutiny of secret surveillance,” reads the headline in The Hill. But it isn’t exactly true. Hylton had already planned to resign, and had been planning to resign since winter — you know, right around the time Senator Grassley began snooping into the marshals’ business dealings. She’ll stay on until a replacement is named. The performance — a resignation amid the surveillance investigation, but almost certainly not the result of it — is intended to create an impression of accountability: Bums out, reformers in. In reality, Hylton can look forward to a generous federal pension and a high-paying sinecure doing “advocacy work on law enforcement safety and community policing,” as The Hill has it.

Senator Grassley seems to be getting what he wants. If true, he said, the charges “would raise serious doubts about the operational practices” of the Marshals Service, “as well as, frankly, Ms. Hylton’s leadership of the USMS.” Her leadership will no longer be an issue: scalp taken. But if she did what Senator Grassley suggests she did, she does not belong in retirement. She belongs in prison.

And that contracting monkey business? It was in the asset-forfeiture division — every police agency needs one of those, too. The thought of the sort of lowlifes we put in charge of them should provoke many sleepless nights in these United States. If our police agencies all turn into crime syndicates, who will investigate the schools?

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