Thursday, December 08, 2005

Tom Noe Redux? Corruption Spreads Across America

The case of Brent Wilkes, one of the alleged co-conspirators who bribed resigned-in-criminal-disgrace Duke Cunningham, has striking parallels with another scandal-ridden campaign contributor - Ohio coin dealer Tom Noe.

Tom Noe
Big-time campaign contributor Tom Noe got in big-time trouble this past year when the Toledo Blade discovered that Noe, an Ohio coin collector, had received a $50 million contract from the state of Ohio to invest in coins. Ensuing investigations revealed that Noe could not account for more than $10 million from the account. At least eight separate federal and state investigations into the investment contract are underway.

Noe contributed money to nearly every prominent politician in Ohio state politics, including Governor Taft, Attorney General Jim Petro, State Auditor Betty Montgomery, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, and Senator George Voinovich. His contributions landed him a seat on the Ohio Board of Regents and the Ohio Turnpike Commission, not to mention the $50 million investment contract, not to mention several rounds of golf with Gov. Taft.

Noe was also a major contributor to President Bush, serving as his 2004 Northwest Ohio campaign chairman and collecting enough donations (more than $100,000) to qualify as a Bush Pioneer. This fundraising spawned another federal investigation into allegations that Noe reimbursed some donors to Bush, a violation of federal money laundering and campaign finance statutes.

Brent Wilkes
Brent Wilkes is alleged Co-conspirator #1 in the indictment against resigned-in-disgrace former congressman Duke Cunningham. In Cunningham's plea agreement, he states that Wilkes gave him $100,000 in 2000, $525,000 to pay off the mortgage on his Rancho Santa Fe home in 2004, and another $11,000 to pay off the mortgage on his boat, some $636,000 in all. In return, Wilkes landed defense contracts worth many millions of dollars due to Cunningham's using his influence on the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.

In addition to actually bribing at least one elected official, Wilkes greased the wheels with hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to both state and federal politicians. Wilkes, his myriad companies, and their employees contributed more than $919,000 in the last ten years. Wilkes was also a Bush Pioneer in 2004, and was the co-chair of Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign fundraising for San Diego County in 2003.

The contributions and bribes helped land Wilkes not only the tens of millions of dollars in unwanted defense contracts, but two appointments from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to the Del Mar Fair Board (2004) and to the State Race Track Licensing commission (2005). The Guv asked Wilkes to resign from the boards the day after Cunningham resigned, but won't give up the dirty cash.

So, both Brent Wilkes and Tom Noe:
1) gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to politicians at the federal and state level,
2) were Bush Pioneers,
3) received appointments to state boards from governors to whom they donated money,
4) received millions in public contracts,
5) donated money to President Bush, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the Republican National Committee, and
6) involved their wives (Regina Wilkes and Bernadette Noe) in their business dealings and political contributions.

In essence, both men used campaign cash to get their hands on taxpayer dollars. Then, they used some of that cash to grease politicians to make sure their gravy train kept on rolling.

A Broken System
When the Noe story broke, he was treated as an anomaly - sure, he gave money to politicians and got contracts, access, and appointments in return, but he was the only guy out there doing anything illegal . . .

Along with the Abramoff/Scanlon scandal, the Cunningham indictment and plea agreement now refute this notion. It is now very apparent that many of our elected officials have forsaken ethics, propriety, and even the law in some cases in their desire for campaign cash and personal enrichment.

Some of the politicians who have received this dirty money have turned the contributions over to charity. Others, like Governor Schwarzenegger and California Rep. John Doolittle, apparently see nothing wrong with taking money not only given to them by felons, but which can be easily traced back to public funds.

According to a recent AP-Ipsos poll, 88% of the American public think political corruption has become a serious problem. The shameless refusal of elected officials to disgorge dirty money is emblematic of an attitude held by many in the nation's political establishment - rake in as much money as possible, consequences be damned - which has fostered, if not created, this public distrust.

Instead of disclaiming all responsibility or accountability for their actions under the current systems of raising money for campaigns, our elected officials should stand up and pass campaign finance laws which level the playing field between regular folks and fatcat contributors, draw more Americans into the process, and which reduce the chance that big contributions from crooks like Noe and Wilkes corrupt representative democracy in America.

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