Corruption in Public Life – Are we the only ones?
Recently, I came across this news-story in the International Herald Tribune titled, “Another Gilded Age of corruption”, by Frank Rich [International Herald Tribune, Sept 26th, '05 Op-Ed Page]
In this highly readable article Frank Rich has lambasted the US establishment for the decreasing standards of accountability in public life and the spread of corruption at all levels. Many of his words bear a striking resemblance to the description of political life and venal practices in India that our learned and politically-aware intellectuals never miss an opportunity to criticise.
The point of reproducing these excerpts is simply to demonstrate neither is India unique in having sleazy practices that have permeated politics nor is it alone in suffering from the corroding effects of dropping moral standards in public life.
Talking about how the political establishment still suffers from the Enron-like malaise that marked American businesses, Frank says, “But even as American business has since been purged by prosecutions and reforms, the mutant Enron version of the CEO culture still rules in Washington: uninhibited cronyism, cooked books, special-favors networks, the banishment of whistle-blowers and accountability.”
Many of you are no doubt aware of the disastrous management of the post-hurricane relief efforts by unqualified FEMA chief Michael Brown. It has also been mentioned that Mr Brown’s sole claim to the job was that he was part of the “Friends of Bush” circle (It was also subsequently revealed that he lied about his disaster handling experience on his resume. See e.g. TIME magazine’s report on him at http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1103003,00.html “How Reliable is Brown’s Resume?” by Daren Fonda and Rita Healy posted Sept 8th ’05.).
Less well known, however, is the recent appointment of Julie Myers.
As Frank reports, “Witness the nomination of Julie Myers as the new head of immigration and customs enforcement for homeland security .Myers is the niece of General Richar Myers and has just married the chief of staff for homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff�Her qualifications for running an agency with more than 20,000 employees and a $4billion budget include serving as associate counsel under Kenneth Starr; in that job, she helped mastermind the costly and doomed prosecution of Susan McDougal, and was outwitted at every turn by the defense lawyer Mark Geragos.”
Here are some more examples of “political appointments” by Bush administration that have more than a whiff of impropriety about them.
“.. errors were compounded when the administration staffed the post-Saddam occupation with the same kind of appointees it would later bring to homeland security: the two heads of “private sector development ” in Iraq were a former Bush fundraiser and a venture capitalist who just happened to be the brother of Ari Fleischer, Bush’s former press secretary. Major roles in the L. Paul Bremer regime were given to 20-somethings with no foreign service experience or knowledge of Arabic simply because they had posted their resumes at the Heritage Foundation, the same conservative think tank where Bremer had chaired a task force.” sounds familiar? Wait, there is more.
As I was reading this, I thought to myself, why is it that we (as in India and Indians) are so often singled out for “corruption in public life and in governance” when the malaise is, in reality, more widespread?
I am not defending corruption “far from it” but we need to have a balanced and objective approach when reporting on these things to paint India (and other developing countries) as hot-spots of corruption, nepotism and cronyism while considering western democracies to be paragons of virtue is wrong on both counts.
As if on cue, less than two weeks later, I stumbled on the following three news items, all from the Sunday Times, Oct 09 ’05:
“Blunkett may face business pay probe” (Page 4) “The cabinet minister David Blunkett is this weekend under pressure to explain his financial and personal links to a controversial businessman” Blunkett was apparently paid by the company for three months work that which he did not declare to Parliament. To make matters worse, the company is owned by the family of Tariq Siddiqi, “A flamboyant businessman with a chequered past” more at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2087-1817420,00.html (Blunkett has since resigned over the affair)
“Falconer tried to bury report into fixing court job” (Page 5) “Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, has been accused of lobbying against publication of a damning report by a government watchdog that found he had acted “inappropriately” in appointing an acquaintance as a senior judge” (to a 126,000 a year post). More at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2087-1817493,00.html
Kilroy-Silk ‘milks’ Brussels for perks (Page 8) “THE MEP (Member of European Parliament) Robert Kilroy-Silk has taken advantage of the Euro “gravy train” that he had pledged to expose by employing his wife and chauffeur at taxpayers “expense” and further in the article, “At least six other UK MEPs employ their spouses as parliamentary assistants” It is ironic that soon after Kilroy-Silk entered the European parliament last year, he had himself “railed in a newspaper article against the “extravagance and waste” in Brussels, which he had experienced first-hand. “MEPs are met at the airport,” he wrote. “Eased into an air-conditioned chauffeur-driven limo and taken to the parliament buildings where they are given a suite of rooms . . . bigger than many of the homes in which my constituents live…It’s not difficult to believe that each MEP costs the taxpayers more than 1m a year.” more at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2087-1817429,00.html
In case you have not realised this, all these stories were reported in just a single day’s edition of the newspaper (although well shielded on Pages 4 and beyond).
Finally, here’s Andrew Sullivan writing in the Sunday Times, Oct 09, ’05, “Bush picks a pal and feeds a credibility crisis”.
I am quoting verbatim from the first few paragraphs:
“She’s a tiny unassuming lady, with the most modest of public careers as a trial lawyer. Her main claim to fame is that she once managed the Texas lottery and then became the president’s bureaucratic gatekeeper in the White House and his personal legal counsel.She has never been a judge and has never, to anyone’s knowledge, even proffered an opinion about the fundamental constitutional issues with which the Supreme Court grapples daily. But last Monday Harriet Miers was nominated to be one of only nine justices on the Supreme Court of the United States. She was, in President Bush’s words, “the best person I could find”.
The statement is risible on its face. And perhaps the most shocking thing about last week was that conservatives were the ones pointing this out. Here’s Trent Lott, about as hard right as you can find, a man who once publicly regretted the end of racial segregation and ran the Republican Senate: “Is she the most qualified person? Clearly, the answer to that is “no”. Others were less delicate: “Bush may as well appoint his chauffeur head of Nasa as put Miers on the Supreme Court, exploded the right-wing blowhard Ann Coulter. Conservative columnist George Will put the case with more restraint but, in some ways, more viciousness. President Bush, he wrote, has neither the inclination nor the ability to make sophisticated judgments”
Just in case you did not know, the appointments are for life. (Miers has since then withdrawn her nomination)
In case these incidents still look like anomalies and aberrations, here are two final news items.
Days before I write this, House Majority Leader (Republican) Tom DeLay has been charged with electoral malpractices (for funnelling corporate funds into political campaigns, see e.g. story in TIME Magazine of Oct 10, ’05, “Power Outage”) and Senate Republican leader Bill Frist is having a hard time explaining why his “blind trust” unloaded all his holdings in a Frist-family founded company just before its stock dropped. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/12/AR2005101202286.html (“SEC Issues Subpoena To Frist, Sources Say”, By Carrie Johnson and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, Washington Post , Oct 13, ’05).
Frist claims that he took this step to avoid “conflict of interest”. Impeccable timing is all I can say.
Image courtesy: www.unodc.org/unodc/en/corruption/index.html