Across the big river from me, New Jersey State Senate President Stephen Sweeney has just created a big stir by calling on New Jersey's Attorney General and U.S. Attorney to investigate the New Jersey Education Association (teachers union) and Fraternal Order of Police for what he calls a "clear case of extortion." NJ.com has the story here.
This is not a small deal. Sweeney is of course a Democrat, often referred to as the most powerful Democrat in the state (the current Governor -- Chris Christie -- being a Republican). But more than that, Sweeney's background is as a unionized construction worker. Before going into politics, he started in the Ironworkers union in 1977, and held several positions in that union, including serving as an organizer. So it's quite something for Sweeney to take on the most powerful public employee unions in this way.
And what have the teachers and police unions done to be on the receiving end of a charge of "extortion"? It seems that the unions want a particular piece of legislation passed (setting up a referendum they think they will win on a constitutional amendment to get increased pension funding), and they orchestrated a series of calls to legislators threatening to withhold campaign contributions from anyone who did not support the legislation. From nj.com:
Representatives from the powerful teachers' union contacted Democratic party leaders Monday and said unless and until there is a vote on a proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing billions of dollars to the government worker pension fund, they would not make campaign contributions this year. Sweeney also told reporters his legislative office had received a direct threat from Bob Fox, president of the Fraternal Order of Police. Fox said no state senator would receive a contribution from the union until the resolution to put the referendum on the ballot is passed, according to an internal email describing the phone message.
OK, here's your quiz for today: Crime, or not crime? How do you tell?
As a clue, I will give you the quote from the expert on the subject chosen by nj.com. He is Jeffrey Brindle, executive director of New Jersey's Election Law Enforcement Commission. If anyone is in a position to know whether this is OK or not, he would be the guy -- right? Well, he doesn't know:
"It doesn't look good," said Jeffrey Brindle, . . . "[But] political scientists have had to wrestle with this for some time: What is quid pro quo? A contribution in exchange for supporting certain policies and legislation? I think it's pretty close."
And he's right. The law is a complete mess. For more on the totally muddled legal situation, see my posts here and here. The short statement of the law is, a "quid pro quo" payment to a politician in return for some "official act" is a crime. So, is a legislator who takes a campaign contribution from someone who hopes he will vote a particular way on some piece of legislation guilty of a crime? Unfortunately, it is inevitable that every single legislator will at some point vote on some piece of legislation in a way favorable to some campaign contributor. Are they all criminals? How do you tell which are which?
As readers here know, my position is, government is inherently corrupt. There is no way around it. That's just one of the reasons (although perhaps the most important one) why we are complete fools to entrust to the government more and more power to redistribute the wealth of society, supposedly to create more fairness and justice in the world. What this process actually creates is more corruption. And does this process create more fairness? If it did, why does Manhattan -- the jurisdiction with the highest taxes and the most extensive suite of progressive welfare and redistributive government programs in the whole country -- have the highest income inequality?
Meanwhile, kudos to Mr. Sweeney for calling out these corrupt union thugs. The fact that their conduct may not be criminal does not make it any less disgusting. People, this is how the government operates out of your sight. Once in a while you get a little peak at the inner processes.