The act of fighting political corruption is a little like the bird flu. There's a frenzy of hysteria every 10 years or so, and then there's a vaccine or something and it all goes away. The Watergate-Abscam ("American Hustle") era of the mid-to-late 1970s, New York City's mob and corruption scandals of the mid-1980s, the Clinton fundraising scandals of the mid-1990s, the bug at Philadelphia City Hall in the mid-2000s. Now in 2014, indictments are the new black -- the ex-governor of Virginia, a conservative pundit who made a movie attacking Obama and got nailed by Obama's Justice Department (I'm sure no one will find that suspicious), and now New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez is being investigated for the umpteenth time.
Try to get your arms around Chris Christie. For four years, the New Jersey governor and his aides bullied critics and rewarded their friends and it was not at all a secret...just nobody cared. Until they did something so over-the-top crazy that it was impossible to ignore. Now all those other things that were hiding in plain sight -- the mismanagement of Sandy relief funds, including abusing some of it to help boost his own re-election -- is suddenly the stuff of FBI investigations.
I used to be a huge fan of corruption prosecutions -- that's faded a bit over time as I've watched the way that prosecutors abuse their power almost as much as the sleazy power-drunk pols they're going after. Truth be told, we've been throwing politicians in jail -- during these occasional feeding frenzies, anyway -- since the Middle Ages, and corruption is still with us.
And here's the thing they don't want you to know: Most corruption is 100 percent legal. Rich people make politicians powerful, and powerful politicians reward their rich donors. Most politicians are bought and paid for by private interests who get their phone calls returned, get tax breaks that no one writes about, or get state grants that their wildly profitable companies don't really need.
What if I told you a story about a nationally known Democratic fundraiser and friend to President Obama who surprised some people by raising money and voicing support for a conservative Republican?. A short time later, the GOP politician's administration awards that fundraiser's profitable company millions to help build an massive new office.
Interesting? Apparently not. It happened just the other day. No one cared.
You might have guessed that I'm talking about Comcast's No. 3 executive David L. Cohen, the former top aide to then-mayor Ed Rendell who has hosted megabucks fundraisers for Obama in his home. But just last February, Cohen surprised some by saying that he expected to support Republican Gov. Corbett and hosting an event that raised $200,000 for Corbett's stumbling campaign.
The other day, Corbett came back to help Cohen's cable giant announce that it was going to build a second skyscraper in Philadelphia, the tallest building between New York and Atlanta. (Full disclosure, the development firm on the project is led by one of the owners of this newspaper.) And to help Comcast -- which made more than $12 billion in profits its last full reporting year of 2012 -- get the job done, the governor came bearing gifts -- $30 million in construction grants and $4.5 million for job creation. A cynic might say that a $34.5 million return on a $200,000 investment in Corbett is a pretty good return.
I know, I know...it's complicated. Philadelphians love the prestige that comes with tall buildings (even one that looks like it's giving West Philly a one-fingered salute) , but more importantly we really, really need jobs, and Comcast is creating hundreds of them. If some of them go to the thousands of long-term unemployed Philadelphians who've been desperately seeking work for months if not years, then we should certainly thank Comcast for that. But in a state with so many needs, is corporate welfare for a $12-billion-a-year profit machine really our top funding priority?
A journalist friend who spent years investigating the mob once told me about wiseguys with a roll of hundreds of dollars in their pocket who would put wooden slugs in tollbooths. Why? Because they\ could.
Is that what just happened here?
Maybe -- but not only is the state throwing so much taxpayer cash at Corbett's new fundraising buddy perfectly legal, but the citizenry is perfectly numb to these dealings of the rich and famous. Comcast undoubtedly has Corbett's ear, but what about the rest of us? The week that Corbett hailed Comcast was the same week he chickened out and abruptly canceled what would have been his first visit to a Philadelphia public school. The schools that are in desperate need of assistance, that did not make $12 billion but had a $300 budget hole, in good measure because of state budget cuts under Corbett.