The real scandal, former New Republic editor Michael Kinsley says, is not what's illegal but what's legal. The saga of Phil Puckett provides further evidence for that thesis.
There is plenty of partisan outrage over the apparent enticing of Puckett, a Democrat, to resign from the Virginia State Senate, and thereby hand control of the body over to Republicans—a move that enabled them to break Virginia's budget stalemate and pass a budget without expanding Medicaid.
Federal investigators also are looking into the tale. Puckett wanted to secure a judgeship for his daughter, but he might have been motivated more by GOP overtures.
Last week, emails surfaced in response to a Richmond Times-Dispatch request under the Freedom of Information Act. They show that Republican Del. Terry Kilgore, chairman of the state's tobacco commission, wanted to discuss "what kind of role" Puckett would like to have with the commission.
As the commission's executive director, Tim Pfohl, wrote to Puckett on May 30: "Chairman Kilgore has asked Ned [Stephenson] and I to reach out to you to discuss potential roles(s) for you as an employee of the Commission. I'm not aware of the genesis of this idea, but Terry has asked us to speak to you when you're available."
If somebody goes down for this, it probably will be Puckett. Remember: Three years ago, Republican Del. Phil Hamilton was convicted of bribery after he secured a $500,000 appropriation to start a teacher program at Old Dominion University—in exchange for the job of directing it. Hamilton is now serving a nine-year stretch in prison for making that deal. Nobody else was even indicted.
Is it scandalous that lawmakers might sell the power of their office for personal gain? Sure. But focusing exclusively on them ignores the other half of the equation, which is just as scandalous—if not more so.
Go back and read Pfohl's email. Not exactly a help-wanted ad, is it? That's because the tobacco commission didn't need any help. The object was creating a vacancy to be filled—not finding someone to fill a vacancy.
This sort of thing happens a lot. CNN reports that in 2010 David Wildstein, a political ally of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, was named director of interstate capital projects at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey—"a title that previously had not existed." According to a former Port Authority employee, "agency officials were told in 2010 they had to find a place for Wildstein at the executive level and the directive was coming from Christie's office," the news agency reported. "Soon after, the position was created specifically for Wildstein."
Last year, the Los Angeles affiliate of CBS reported that Gilbert Cedillo Jr., the son of an L.A. city councilman, had been given a six-figure job with a southern California water district authority that was under federal investigation. The authority's P.R. guy told a reporter the job had not existed before Cedillo's arrival. Cedillo had been chief of staff to a state legislator whose brother was hired as a consultant to the same water authority.
Cases like these differ from mere political patronage, which is bad enough. Under traditional patronage systems, job openings are filled by people with friends in high places. (As one Chicago ward boss once put it, "we don't want nobody that nobody sent.") But at least patronage deals in real jobs that need to be done.
What do you call the creation of jobs that don't need to be done at all, for the benefit of the politically connected? "Sinecures" doesn't seem strong enough.
This happens in the private sector too. A politician of no great legal skill who loses an election sometimes ends up as partner at a high-powered law firm. Or he becomes a "consultant" for a defense contractor. Or a "resident scholar" at a partisan think tank. And he doesn't get the job because any of those organizations is short on manpower.
But at least when the private sector does it, the damage is limited. If certain companies and nonprofits want to squander their resources comforting the comforted, that's their business.
Shareholders and donors who don't like it can always direct their money elsewhere.
When government entities do the same thing, everybody suffers. And the taxpayers who get shortchanged by the deals can't decline to pay their taxes in protest. They're stuck. (Technical point: Virginia's tobacco commission is funded by proceeds from a 1998 settlement with tobacco companies. Still, that money is supposed to benefit the people—not the pols.)
Apparently there's nothing illegal about creating pointless government jobs for political gain at public expense.
But there certainly is no excusing it, either.