All politics is local even politically motivated federal investigations.
That's the assertion of two Midwestern communication professors who have identified hundreds of U.S. Department of Justice investigations and indictments involving candidates and elected officials at all levels across the country since the Bush administration came to power.
Hmmmmm, politics at the Justice Department? You don't say. But it's the local effects these authors highlight that are as troubling as what's in national headlines about politically motivated firings.
John Cragan, professor emeritus of communication at Illinois State University, and Donald Shields, a professor emeritus of communication at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, assembled a database of investigations and indictments of elected officials and candidates, noting the political party of each one. Since no official records exist showing the political parties of such targets, they researched news articles that identified them.
"There would be a published story in some newspaper, and we started keeping tally," Cragan says.
The authors found 375 cases nationally during the six-year study. Some had indictments; some had simply an "investigation" of records or other buzzwords for suspicions of wrongdoing; some had files subpoenaed in conjunction with other investigations.
Of the total, 10 "targets" were independents (4 percent), 67 were Republicans (18 percent) and 298 were Democrats (79 percent). Nationally, Republicans hold 41 percent of elected seats; Democrats have 50 percent, and independents have 9 percent.
In Michigan, all 17 of the cases in the study were from the party not occupying the White House. One person lived in Bay City while the rest were from metro Detroit.
Some were charged, like former Wayne County Commissioner Keith Stallworth, who pleaded guilty to evading federal currency reporting requirements. Others were charged and unsuccessfully tried, like former Macomb County Prosecutor Carl Marlinga.
Others were never charged, like the late Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara. Included also are several Democratic candidates close to McNamara who, in 2002, had campaign records subpoenaed by the feds, including then-Governor elect Jennifer Granholm, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, then Wayne County Prosecutor Michael Duggan, secretary of state candidate Melvin "Butch" Hollowell and congressional candidate Kevin Kelley. It was reported at the time that none of these politcos were the target of an investigation.
"The study brings to light some very interesting questions that need further examination," says Kilpatrick spokesman Matt Allen.
Cragan said the pattern of pursuing investigations and charges against urban politicians exists in other U.S. cities. While some may be guilty, he says, the real problem is the appearance presented when very few small town targets are acquired.
"The big cities are invariably wall-to-wall Democrats. They didn't get out and look at any of the Republican city councils," he says of Justice Department investigations nationally.
In addition, Cragan argues, terms like "was a target of a federal investigation" can stick with the up-and-coming politicians for years, discredit them with the voters, and make Dems look more corrupt overall than Republicans.
"The U.S. Attorney's office has a great power to decide who they will investigate," Cragan says. "If you leak [word of an investigation] to the press and if you leak it right before an election? Wow," he says.
Not to mention that since no real records are kept of such cases, "connecting the dots" can be difficult for journalists in different cities who won't necessarily detect the national pattern when covering local cases. Local corruption reports appear as isolated incidents, not part of a nationally orchestrated scheme.
"The only way we could stop this was to keep score, so that's what we're doing," Cragan says.
Four different men headed Detroit's U.S. Attorney's office during the period of the study. Two of them Alan Gershel and Craig Morford served interim terms of about six months. The current U.S. Attorney, Stephen J. Murphy, has just one identified case in the study. Jeffrey G. Collins, who served from November 2001 to August 2004, oversaw 11 of the identified cases. He did not return telephone calls.
Gina Balaya, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Detroit, declined to comment on the study. But she did provide a quote from a Justice Department spokesman who said, in part, the media were to blame for the lopsided rates of Democrats identified.
"This so-called study contains absolutely no Justice Department data or statistics, but is merely an accumulation of news articles which at best indicates that the media covers some corruption cases more than others," the statement says. "For your information, the Department of Justice does not keep statistics on the political affiliation of individuals charged or convicted of public corruption."
And that's something Cragan would like to see changed. He's calling for a national registry of federal investigations of elected officials and candidates, cataloged by political party. That would help ensure the classic separation of powers Cragan and Shields believe has eroded.
"Our research means there's a hole in our democratic process. If a party, any party, controls the executive and the legislative, then it can corrupt the judicial. We believe that's what's happened," Cragan says.News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]