Caught at the intersection of money, power, politics and public perception, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson spoke out today about his decision to withdraw his name from consideration to become a member of President-elect Barack Obama's Cabinet.
"Sometimes your own dreams and plans must take a back seat to what is best for the nation," Richardson said Monday.
Richardson sounded almost high-minded. But what made it so tough for Richardson to pursue the job of commerce secretary was a federal investigation into how one of Richardson's major political donors landed lucrative state contracts.
CDR Financial Products, a Beverly Hills, Calif., firm, was awarded a state contract by the New Mexico Finance Authority for nearly $1.5 million to advise from 2004 to 2005 on a New Mexico highway funding project. Meanwhile, CDR and the company's president, David Rubin, had given $100,000 to Richardson's political action committees.
Federal investigators are trying to determine whether there was a quid pro quo -- a this for that. Or, in the parlance of our times, whether the company paid to play.
"'Pay to play' means you've got to give something to get something," said Alan Lichtman, professor of history at American University. "So, you want a contract, you want a job, you've got to give something to the decision maker."
The phrase made headlines last month with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's alleged attempt to sell Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat.
Richardson isn't the only Obama appointee under a cloud. Questions have also been raised about the president-elect's choice for secretary of state. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton pushed through a $5 million earmark that benefited a New York developer who'd given $100,000 to Bill Clinton's foundation.
Clinton's office insists there was no connection between the contribution and the earmark. But people are asking the question: Did the developer pay to play?
"Money is exchanged for access. Money is exchanged for being in the mix. Where it goes over the line is when it's actually for a real earmark or a real contract," said Bill Buzenberg, executive director for the Center of Public Integrity.
A cynic might say that's just how politics works: You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. Of course, that's not how it's supposed to work. Elected officials are sworn to represent their entire constituencies, not just the rich folk who pony up cash.
"If you're a lobbyist and you're giving $100,000 and you're getting millions of dollars in return in an earmark, it's a really good bargain," Buzenberg said.
The vast majority of political contributions are perfectly legal. To be illegal, the courts insist prosecutors be able to prove the quid pro quo, and that can be extremely difficult.
Corruption is bipartisan. Both parties have a rogues gallery of members accused or convicted.
"In recent years, we've seen an explosion of corruption cases on both sides of the aisle, involving Republicans like Tom DeLay, Duke Cunningham, Congressman Ney, as well as Democrats like Gov. Blagojevich, allegations against Congressman William Jefferson and now allegations against Gov. Bill Richardson," said Lichtman. "Corruption seems to know no ideology, no limits of party, no limits of geography."
In the 1939 film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," Jimmy Stewart played an idealistic young senator appointed by a corrupt party boss.
Roland Burris, Blagojevich's choice to replace Obama, is determined to come to Washington, despite the controversy surrounding his appointment to Obama's former Senate seat.
Burris, former Illinois attorney general, is a well-respected public servant, but the Senate has refused to seat him because he was appointed by Blagojevich.
In America, there is no disputing: Money talks. But campaign contributions are also a protected form of free speech.
"The line between illegal bribery and legal campaign contributions with an expected return is a very thin and gray one," Lichtman said. "If we were to prosecute every time everyone steered a contract to a campaign contributor, we'd be prosecuting virtually every politician in this country."