Blatant bribery at highest levels of government passes as “charity”

Posted on March 5, 2011


Good Will or Bad?

Supriya Jindal has a real knack for non-profit entrepreneurship.  Since she started her foundation just under three years ago, the program has raised approximately $1 million and installed 170 high-tech, revolutionary whiteboards in 50 schools all across the Bayou State.  Does she just have a natural gift for fundraising management?  Can we attribute her overnight success to that M.B.A. she holds courtesy of Tulane University?  Or is it because she is married to Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, who temporarily has the power to tailor government policy to corporate interests?

The $5,000 cap on gubernatorial campaign contributions that most corporations face in the state of Louisiana leaves little opportunity for CEOs to buy political leverage.  In essence, that is the point of the cap on corporate money in politics: to save us from becoming a corporate-run oligarchic nation (or more of one, I should say).  But there is one type of donation on which there is no cap: the type that funds a charity foundation run by a politician’s family member(s).

In this particular case, Supriya Jindal’s foundation has accepted timely donations of up to $250,000 from major companies seeking anything from regulatory exceptions to infrastructure projects that only Mr. Jindal has the power to sign off on.  About 80% of the $1 million has been provided by nine different companies, the likes of which include AT&T, oil companies like Alon, Dow Chemical, and Marathon, and a military contractor called Northrop Grumman.  Aside from the ostensible (and likely ostentatious) intent of rendering Louisiana’s children smarter, all of these companies undoubtedly had ulterior motives for donating the money.

When asked about the existence of these ulterior motives, Jeff Morris, Alon’s President said, “…that is not the case here. It is apparent that the children of Louisiana have been blessed by Supriya’s involvement.”  How CEO-esque of Mr. Morris: he pretends to give an answer to the question while simultaneously avoiding it entirely and choosing to focus instead on the obviously positive aspects of Ms. Jindal’s program.  Whether or not the children learn more effectively with the whiteboards is a separate issue entirely from the main concern of the story: are corporations making these donations with the intent of influencing government policy?  Melanie Sloan, director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, said that the answer to this question is yes, and one must look no further than the fact that family charities like this often “dry up” soon after the family member in power leaves office.

This is, however, not a new phenomenon in U.S. politics, as The New York Times identifies “at least a dozen” Congress members who have jumped through this loop-hole into the land of Politician Utopia where a lawmaker can take credit for satisfying both multinational corporate interests and the needs of the needy with a single program.  The question is, should this legalized form of bribery be outlawed?  On the one hand, it does give incentive to corporations to give more to the less fortunate.  $250,000 is a big check to write for the benefit of young Louisianans, one that AT&T probably would not have written had it not been for the political leverage they stood to gain consequently.  Does this mean we should embrace these backhanded inducements, considering they promote progress in society like upgrades to education?  In my opinion: not at all.  Regulation should be expanded or contracted based on the economic and political interests of an entire state or nation, not those of a single for-profit entity.  Neither politicians nor corporations are inherently bad, but politicians who focus solely on building their personal or family legacy and not on meeting the demands of the American people are bad for America, just as corporations that are able to manipulate said politicians and usurp governmental order are subject to moral hazard and therefore detrimental to the country.

In the long-run, the negative aspects of this odd loop-hole will far outweigh the positives, regardless of how cool the whiteboards are.