Friday, May 27, 2005

Waltzing Elsewhere

Posted By on Fri, May 27, 2005 at 1:46 PM

The Waltzgate* indictments naturally recall for many Tennessee's "Rocky Top" scandal in the late 1980s, leading to some convictions (not to mention suicides) of public officials over charity bingo and illegal gambling. Closer parallels are found, however, in similar stings aimed at legislators in other states. Two in particular come to mind.

*Bound to happen eventually, so figured I might as well be out front with it. In South Carolina in 1990, the feds indicted 28 legislators, lobbyists and other officials on charges of swapping votes for money in a sting called "Operation Lost Trust." Several legislators and lobbyists copped pleas or went to trial, but -- oops -- it turned out that the key government witness was a criminal and drug addict who was lying about some of the allegations, and apparently prosecuters knew it. In 1997 a federal judged tossed all outstanding charges, and many defendents subsequently sought reversals of their convictions. (Some of this history is found in a nifty series on prosecutorial misconduct that the Pittsburgh Post Gazette ran in 1998.)

In Arizona in 1991, several state legislators were caught in a sting called "AzScam" (dubbed that by a newspaper, not law enforcement) involving lobbying to bring casino gambling to the state. Organized by a county attorney and police chief (not by the feds), AzScam relied on an "ex-gangster turned undercover operative" who convinced lawmakers and lobbyists to accept bribes in exchange for their promises to support gambling legislation. There were 18 indictments; seven elected officials left office (one not voluntarily), and several did time.

The upbeat harbinger for us: In both states the scandals led to serious ethics reform in state government. In South Carolina Operation Lost Trust gave rise to new powers for the state's ethics commission to police lobbyist disclosure, financial disclosure, campaign practices, and ethical rules of conduct, with authority to conduct investigations and increased penalties. In Arizona, AzScam led to requirements for full disclosure of lobbying activities and expenditures, among other reforms.

It could happen here. At any rate, it's more likely than it was two days ago.

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