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What the Leland Yee Charges Reveal About Campaign Finance Law

It's not what is illegal that's crazy—it is what is legal.

The specific charges against State Senator Leland Yee were released today, and the San Francisco Democrat faces one charge of conspiracy to deal firearms without a license and five of defrauding Californians of their "right to honest services" relating to his alleged sale of political favors in exchange for cash and campaign contributions.

The charge of gun running is almost laughable in its horribleness. It sounds less like something a local politician would be caught doing and more like the scheme of a villainous mastermind in a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. But let's leave it aside for a moment, and focus on the less sexy charge against Yee. Those are the ones that tell us more about what money does to American politics.

Yee is accused in five instances of accepting bribes from undercover FBI agents in exchange for delivering services from his office.

In each instance, these took the form of direct quid pro quo exchanges: Yee is alleged to have taken money on the understanding that he would perform for the donors. Yee talks up a (fake) company seeking a contract with the California Department of Public Health. The agents give him ten grand in cash. Yee issues an official proclamation celebrating the Chee Kung Tong. He gets two checks totaling $6,800 for his Secretary of State Race. A FBI agent poses as a businessman in the medical marijuana industry. Yee introduces him to two other state senators and keeps him up to date of a few pieces of legislation, and he gets a total of $29,000.

Situations like these—if true—are paradigms of political corruption. (Side note: Several years ago, I worked for the State Assembly, and threw someone out of a meeting who tried to offer us a campaign contribution in the middle of a policy conversation. We didn't take the money or return his phone calls after that.) But the trouble is that if you think that this kind of interaction constitutes the bulk of political corruption—like the Supreme Court does—you are mistaken.

Leland Yee is an outlier case. He never had strong policy positions on many issues, but he did have an open hand for contributions and cash. He was, as they say, the "jukebox" of political officials. Put in the money and tell him what song to sing. This is, of course, bad for democracy, but it's not really the worst thing that money does to the system.

Most of what money does is more insidious—it buys access. It buys an official who remembers your name. It buys the private cell phone number to your local elected official. The seat next to them at a horribly-long rubber chicken benefit dinner where the two of you get so bored and drunk on cheap red wine that you can't help but talk about how terrible [insert policy position here] is and how easy it would be to fix. It's much less about convincing an elected official to change their minds (good luck writing Rand Paul a check to convince him that Ayn Rand isn't awesome) as it is to influence what they think is important—and what isn't.

That's the kind of stuff that you have to worry about. And it's what neither today's indictment nor this week's Supreme Court decision is paying attention to. It's all legal, and it's far more widespread that Yee's alleged misdeeds.

Also, gun running? We still can't get our heads around that one.

 

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