One good reason not to work in politics is that jail really sucks.
In Florida, serving time in elected office statistically increases your chances of serving hard time later, as we frequently lead the entire country in political corruption convictions. We even top California and Texas, the only states with larger populations than ours.
How bought are our politicians? Well, to spot Florida’s hottest new charlatans and criminals of tomorrow, you need only scan through last week’s headlines.
At the federal level, convicted congressional candidate Justin Lamar Sternad signed documents linking former Florida Republican congressman David Rivera to a conspiracy to transfer more than $80,000 in illegal campaign contributions.
In Tallahassee, billionaire Miguel B. “Mike” Fernandez hosted a fundraising barbecue on Sunday for Gov. Rick
Scott’s re-election. Fernandez, who receives millions of dollars in state Medicaid contracts, also happens to be Scott’s campaign finance chair and single largest contributor.
Another donor, the founder of Charter Schools USA, wrote $100,000 in checks to the governor’s re-election committee and to the state Republican Party. He’s now the governor’s pick to run a new charter school at MacDill Air Force Base.
Locally, a grand jury is investigating expressway authority board members for public records violations related to the hiring of a new executive director. Former state representative Steve Precourt had been courted and hired for the position before leaving amid a cloud of controversy. The Sentinel reported last week that Precourt had channeled nearly $9,000 from a now-illegal campaign fund into a 16-day-old charity run by his wife to “share the Gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ.”
Jesus Christ, indeed. But wait, there’s more.
Last year, two lobbyists and the mayors of Homestead, Sweetwater and Miami Lakes were all arrested within one month and charged with kickback and bribery schemes. This prompted the New York Times to call Florida a notorious “hothouse for corruption.”
The label fits. And it’s not like we didn’t have a bad reputation before. If you type the two letters “fl” into a Google search field, among the first choices is usually the phrase “Florida political corruption.”
This is just one outcome of a statewide mindset that values greed as an acceptable political philosophy. Outsiders already think we live in a crazy, pythons-in-the-laundromat nightmare of lawlessness and abundant firearms. They don’t know half the story.
Florida is a place that actively projects the idea that government is inept and on the take. Lots of politicians actually benefit from that perception.
Conservatives in our state Legislature already steal from us legally, often engaging in what cognitive linguist George Lakoff calls “privateering,” a combination of “privatization” and “profiteering.”
Privateering, explains Lakoff in his 2008 book The Political Mind, is a type of privatization in which “public funds are used to provide capital for private corporations to take over those critical functions of government.” It’s a well-funded process of normalizing concepts like private contractors replacing public schools. These corporations overcharge the public while evading accountability.
The corrupt politicians who enable privateering are the ones who keep going to jail. They only get caught and convicted when they go too far, when their eagerness to enrich corporate donors – and thus themselves – gets too sloppy to hide or justify in court. When few legal barriers protect us against institutionalized stealing, corruption reigns and leaders take full advantage.
As long as this continues happening in record numbers here, Floridians are effectively unsafe and ungoverned.
“Our lives are being governed more and more by private corporations,” writes Lakoff. “We have not elected them, cannot turn them out of office or make them accountable to us.”
That’s one reason why corruption cases usually end with politicians in jail, while their corporate masters remain free to purchase more of the influence that ordinary people have lost.
“Democracy is the first casualty of privateering,” warns Lakoff. “Each act of privateering robs us of a portion of democracy.”