Honest graft

The sudden and startling resignation of Nevada Senate Democratic floor leader Kelvin Atkinson was surprising only in its out-of-nowhere nature. Usually there is some warning that an investigation is underway.

Otherwise, it’s more of the same. Politics has become so permeated with dirty money that it wearies the public.

In news that brought Nevada unwanted publicity from coast to coast, Atkinson told the Senate he was resigning because he had misused campaign funds for personal use. He later pleaded guilty to a federal wire fraud charge.

Atkinson deserves credit for his confession, his contrition, and for the fact that he did not attack prosecutors, Trumplike. He spoke instead of shame and asked forgiveness, a refreshing tone in these cases.

But that is little consolation to a public that has difficulty putting faith in a system that fails the nation time after time after time, and Nevada Republicans did the state no favors by immediately trying to exploit the case.

The sense of entitlement of officeholders is appalling. Atkinson’s sin was taking care of himself. More common is candidates and officeholders taking money and favors.

Why didn’t Harry Reid just refuse prizefight tickets offered by the Nevada Athletic Commission? Instead, he defended his acceptance of them, saying they would not influence his vote on federal legislation the Commission opposed. The public shouldn’t have had to take his word for that. He should never have let the issue arise.

When Hillary Clinton was offered the kind of money some people make only in a lifetime to do nothing more than give a few speeches, why didn’t she say no?

When Dean Heller and Mark Amodei accepted money from MGM and then later lobbied the U.S. Interior Secretary to kill a tribal casino in another state that would compete with MGM, they offered the same claim Reid did—they were trying to help a home state industry. But money creates conflicts of interest. If a candidate accepts it, that candidate then needs to abstain from helping the giver. If that hurts the home state, that is the price the candidate pays for becoming beholden. S/he can’t have it both ways.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, a New York machine politician named George Washington Plunkitt gave a name to this sort of thing—honest graft, because it offers a patina of legality.

When Dean Heller opposes Trump on the Affordable Care Act, incurring the wrath of the billionaire Koch Brothers, then switches sides and the Kochs start running ads for him, no one is fooled.

In courtrooms, it causes problems as jurors try to sort out what is a bribe and what is a campaign contribution.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson of Alabama presided over a vote-selling case, and the confusion between the two was so pronounced that he wrote, “The Supreme Court needs to address this issue and provide guidance to the lower courts, prosecutors, politicians, donors and the general public. … Much ink has been spilled over the contours of campaign finance law. Far less attention has been paid to what actually constitutes a ‘bribe.'”

It would be even better if candidates stayed clean in the first place.