Commentary

Campaign finance and pay-to-play corruption is also destroying the American Republic

January 27, 2022 3:20 am

Credit: BW/Getty Images.

Gerrymandered rigging of district lines to guarantee political party power is not the only thing posing an existential threat to the American Republic. It goes hand-in-hand with a system of campaign finance that allows for massive pay-to-play corruption infecting government.

Earlier this week the Ohio Capital Journal published an investigation into findings of immediate jeopardy at nursing homes around the state throughout the pandemic.

The story showed how some nursing homes allowed nurses with active COVID-19 infections to report for their care duties, placed infected residents in shared rooms with uninfected roommates, and flouted preventive measures like masks and quarantines, leading to deadly outbreaks.

The state legislature has done little to address infection control problems in Ohio nursing homes and passed legislation that critics say will worsen them, including a bill protecting health care providers and general businesses from lawsuits related to COVID-19. Meanwhile, it’s doled out $300 million in pandemic aid to nursing homes, earmarked after amendments for workers.

Within the story were a couple lines of notable insight into the corrupt pay-to-play dynamics of Ohio politics.

Before dying by suicide last year after being indicted in the FirstEnergy/House Bill 6 $61 million political bribery scandal, Ohio lobbyist Neil Clark wrote in his book:

“The (Ohio Health Care Association’s) access to soft or dark money is outperformed only by the utility companies. (With) OHCA’s ability to solicit individual members’ corporate accounts, the OHCA is the envy of most. If FirstEnergy were a bank, then the nursing home industry is like having 500 ATM machines located around the state. Walk up, punch in a number and take out what you want. They have perfected the art of keeping politicians happy.”

Between 2016 and 2020, the nursing home industry poured some $6.1 million into state politics through three industry PACs, one nonprofit linked to the OHCA, and facility operators themselves, OCJ reported.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars from OHCA went to a nonprofit called Generation Now, which pleaded guilty last year in connection with the HB 6 scandal.

The utility companies mentioned by Clark are indeed among the biggest beneficiaries of Ohio’s pay-to-play political corruption system as has been illustrated time and time again since the HB 6 scandal broke.

FirstEnergy has admitted to bribing Ohio’s top utility regulator $4.3 million to execute his duties to their benefit. After the revelation of bribery, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said he doesn’t even regret making the appointment of this regulator.

Between 2017 and when HB 6 was signed into law in July 2019, FirstEnergy donated nearly $375,000 to 54 different state lawmakers. Of those 54, 41 voted for HB 6, just 11 voted against and two did not cast a ballot.

Meanwhile, electric customers across Ohio have collectively spent an estimated $211 million via add-on bill charges over the last two years stemming from the HB 6 law to cover for losses from two coal-fired power plants that continue to bleed millions annually, according to data from state regulators.

In a survey this past fall, 21 of 22 Ohio economists disagreed with the proposition that “subsidies for coal plants paid for through state-mandated rate increases such as those in (House Bill 6) have economic benefits that outweigh their costs.”

Take another example, the situation with Ohio’s Medicaid department, where the director (while owning stocks in some of the companies, the details of which DeWine is apparently fine with her not disclosing) awarded contracts last year worth billions of dollars to a health care middleman corporation that had only six months prior paid Ohio $88.3 million to settle a lawsuit claiming it had defrauded taxpayers of tens of millions of dollars. Just before the lawsuit was filed, the company hired an old friend of the governor to lobby on its behalf.

Here’s another example: The private, for-profit Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) charter school, which was conceived on a napkin in a Waffle House, closed mid-year in 2018 after data-rigging on attendance numbers was revealed. Over the years it was in existence, ECOT founder Bill Lager and associates contributed $2.5 million to state politicians while his companies siphoned $1 billion away from public education in Ohio.

Also in 2018, then-Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger abruptly resigned after the FBI raided his home as subject of an investigation into his “relationship with GOP mega donor Ginni Ragan, his trips with lobbyists, and a lack of action on a payday lending reform bill, which became law after he stepped down,” according to an update story from the Columbus Dispatch last year. The FBI said in the story the case was still open.

All of this is the very definition of what’s known as “regulatory capture.” That’s when the elected officials and their appointees who are supposed to be in charge of providing oversight on an industry instead do the industry’s bidding at the expense of the public.

How can this happen? It’s very simple and very human: greed, ambition for power and influence, arrogance, and a lack of ethical morality. Woe is American culture for breeding so many of this type of “public servant.”

Special interest groups donate millions to politicians’ campaigns and politician-supporting dark money PACs and get billions of dollars of public money in return.

The donors pay pennies on the dollar to buy the loyalty of those who are supposed to hold them accountable, at the expense of the public.

In response, the politicians enact appropriate policy to keep the donations pouring in to better ensure their reelection and perpetuate the cycle.

The ideal of a constitutional democratic republic is for elected officials to represent the people, but time and again we see the people being hosed for the benefit of private profiteering.

Politicians spend dozens of hours each week doing what’s known as “call time.” This is where they go down a list of people with money and a wide variety of interests, and they sympathize with their issues and then ask them for that money in the form of campaign donations. I imagine it’s a debasing thing to have to do, but it must be done to win elections — elections laws such as they are.

Some politicians will claim that donations have no impact whatsoever on their policy choices. This is about as disingenuous and hack as it gets.

Donations may not always be the deciding factor in a politician’s vote, policy choice or regulatory appointment, but to claim that they have no influence at all is an outright lie. These aren’t concepts of special interests and politics, they are real human relationships based around money and power.

If we are to truly save the American Republic, not only do we have to strike down poisonous gerrymandering, but we have to overhaul our campaign finance system and enact anti-corruption measures to ensure that elected officials are representing the constituents they were elected to represent, not the donor classes funding campaigns and exchanging millions of dollars in donations for billions of dollars in publicly funded and publicly sponsored private profits and protections.

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David DeWitt
David DeWitt

OCJ Editor-in-Chief David DeWitt has more than 15 years experience covering Ohio government, politics and policy, including education, health care, crime and courts, poverty, state and local government, business, labor, energy, environment, and social issues. He has worked for the National Journal, The New York Observer, The Athens NEWS, and Plunderbund.com. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and is a board member of the E.W. Scripps Society of Alumni and Friends. He can be found on Twitter @DC_DeWitt.

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