Politics & Policy

The McCabe-Stockman Lesson: In Politics, Clean Up Your Own Nest First

Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe testifies before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, May 11, 2017. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)
Blind faith in ‘your team,’ whether left or right, is dangerous.

One of the hardest things to learn in politics is that just because you agree with someone and he is on “your team,” that doesn’t mean you can trust him, accept what he says at face value, or know for certain what’s in his heart.

Good character is often independent of ideology. Just as we must guard against temptation in our own lives, so too must we guard against blindly believing apparent allies. The fact that someone is being hunted down by your opponents doesn’t necessarily mean he’s worth defending.

Take two examples from this month, one from the left and one from the right.

The Justice Department’s inspector general (appointed by Barack Obama) has referred former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe for potential prosecution after establishing that he lied over and over to investigators about leaking to the media. James Comey, who was McCabe’s boss at the FBI, says he is certain that McCabe isn’t telling the truth about having kept him apprised of the press leak. But Comey himself cast doubt on the inspector general in an interview last week on NPR:

Even if the process was sound, and I’ve no doubt it was sound given the nature of the people involved in the inspector general’s office, there’s corrosive doubt about whether it’s a political fix to get Andy McCabe somehow.

By all evidence, McCabe is a staunch Democrat whose wife received $750,000 for her 2015 Virginia state-senate campaign from a top Hillary Clinton ally. (She lost the race.) Despite the conflict of interest, he declined to recuse himself from the FBI’s probe of Hillary’s emails until one week before the 2016 election. Liberal activists are setting up a legal defense fund for McCabe. Because he is seen as a Trump “resister,” he must be defended.

But blind loyalty on the left is matched by some on the right. This month, former GOP representative Steve Stockman of Texas was convicted on 23 felony charges. Stockman, a certified public accountant, used the prestige of his office to solicit $1.25 million from a pair of conservative donors for his campaign and various charities. But he wound up spending the loot on everything from hot-air-balloon rides and flights to Africa to an alcohol-rehab program for an aide and to a trip to Disneyland. He spent $24,000 to give his relatives “heirloom quality advent books.” All this was funneled through a web of 17 sham businesses and shell bank accounts in four states and the Virgin Islands.

In 2013, a wealthy businessman gave Stockman $350,000 in charitable donations to renovate something called Freedom House. Only token amounts wound up being used for that purpose. Instead, the money went to pay many of Stockman’s personal expenses and funnel contributions to his campaign under the pretext they were from other entities. One $30,000 printing bill was paid by a cashier’s check from the Egyptian American Friendship Society, apparently an offshore front group.

Other “campaign” expenditures were even sketchier. Stockman aide Benjamin Wetmore testified at Stockman’s trial that the congressman hired people to spy on three Republican state lawmakers who might run for his seat.

While Christian compassion should be extended to Stockman’s long-suffering family, the defense mounted by some of his allies is sad given the mountain of evidence against him. “I’ve known Steve for many years. There’s not a corrupt bone in his body,” writes Joe Farah, the editor of the conservative website World Net Daily. “Don’t believe anything else you read about this case anywhere — including Fox News, which hung him out to dry.”

Well, I’ve talked to people who’ve known Stockman for over 30 years, and the tale they tell is consistent. Steve Stockman repeatedly milked the political system in a way that even hardened cynics found shocking. By sheer persistence and good timing, he was able to win two nonconsecutive terms in the U.S. House from the Houston area. In 1994, Stockman rode public outrage from gun owners over a federal crime bill; capitalizing on their anger, he managed to defeat Democratic incumbent Jack Brooks, chair of the House Judiciary Committee. After being defeated in 1996, Stockman bided his time until 2012 and then won the GOP primary in a newly created district east of Houston that would elect any stray goofball — if he was a Republican.

Stockman often acted like a goofball: He spread conspiracy theories he didn’t back up with facts, walked out of Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, and ran a quixotic campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2014. Its most notable feature was his disappearance from the campaign trail for weeks at a time. We now know he wasn’t trying to win — he was just using the sham campaign to raise cash to keep his web of sham companies afloat.

Jason Posey, a former Stockman aide who testified for the prosecution, said he was loyal to the man for some 20 years. “We all knew what we were doing was wrong,” he testified, adding that  Stockman had guaranteed he would take care of him if things got bad. Only when Posey was convinced he was going to be made the fall guy did he contact FBI agents. “I realized that I had been a complete fool for trusting Mr. Stockman, and he never intended to keep his pledge,” Posey ruefully concluded.

Posey’s last work for Stockman came after Stockman’s 2014 Senate race ended in ignominious defeat. But Stockman had a Plan B. He told Posey to go to Alaska and scout out the retiring congressman’s prospects for running for the U.S. Senate there. But when federal investigators began sniffing around, Stockman ordered Posey to leave Alaska and head for Egypt, where he tried unsuccessfully to keep all of their sham schemes afloat.

The conservative movement should have removed Stockman from politics and avoided the stain of his future behavior.

Stockman’s legal defense against all the charges was that the donors to his ventures didn’t care how the $1.25 million they donated was spent so long as it kept Stockman in office. He also tweeted that he was the victim of a “deep state” plot to remove him from politics.

“I do not know what a ‘deep state conspiracy’ is, but I do know what constitutes a criminal conspiracy,” said Philip Hilder, a Houston lawyer appointed to represent Posey.

In reality, it was the conservative movement that should have removed Stockman from politics and avoided the stain of his future behavior. I’ve interviewed several people who knew Stockman from his first days in the Young Conservatives of Texas. One former YCT activist told me that Stockman lied about his availability for an overseas political trip and grabbed his place in the delegation. Another told me that money “disappeared into Stockman’s pockets faster than what a bank robber could pull off.”

When Stockman first went to Congress in 1995, he began violating congressional rules within days of being sworn in. One of his employees recalls that Stockman had two aides installed in his congressional office who would do nothing but make fundraising calls, a clear violation of House rules. When another aide confronted Stockman over it, he was told to keep his mouth shut and not say anything.

No matter how fervently someone believes in a cause and no matter how powerful someone fighting for that cause may be, there’s no excuse for risking the stain that people of bad character can leave behind.

Just as Andy McCabe has stained the once sterling reputation of the FBI, it’s clear that Steve Stockman has made it harder for voters to trust their elected officials, and made it harder to raise money for legitimate conservative causes.

If activists on the left or right blindly excuse or ignore the evidence of bad behavior by those within their ranks, they risk more than future embarrassment. They risk never achieving the noble goals they claim to cherish.

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