There's a comedic moment in the police interview last year of developer and former American National Bank board chairman Bucky Kopf. He had confessed to bribing Avon Lake Mayor Vince Urbin, and police and prosecutors were pressuring him to admit the $2,000 in cash he gave Urbin was meant to buy influence.
Kopf protests: "People come in my door all the goddamned time, asking for contributions because they're running for office -- half the goddamned county."
Lorain County Prosecutor Greg White presses ahead. Slipping someone cash is different, he argues. You knew it was illegal, didn't you?
Kopf concedes the nuances of the point, but it's clear that in his mind, when he kicks money to politicians, whether legally or not, it's all the same thing. "You give a contribution to a politician and hope he helps you out . . . It's good for business . . . I want him on my side."
Kopf will never be confused for a member of the Princeton faculty, but he makes a valuable point: A bribe is a bribe is a bribe.
Jim Traficant could have used Kopf during his racketeering trial.
The good congressman, not exactly an Einstein descendant himself, made the unfortunate decision of employing the Victim Defense: He was just an honest politician working hard for his district. The Big Mean Feds were out to get him.
Yet in the crowded field of professional victimhood, a congressman is always a dark horse in the divisional standings. Besides, Traficant had far better strategies at his disposal:
He could have cultivated the Moron Defense, telling jurors: "I spent 18 &%$#@8* years in Congress, and I'm the only moron who couldn't exploit my connections to get my ass rich. So I figured it was better to shake down contractors than go on welfare. Jim Traficant was there to protect your tax dollars."
He could have invoked the Hairdo Defense: "Jesus, look at my hair! How long do you think I'll survive in prison with this damn hair?"
But his best bet was the Discount Defense: "I'm a cheaper, more cost-efficient brand of scumbag -- a better value for your political dollar."
It's a legal strategy with plenty of ammo.
Testimony revealed that Traficant took $139,000 in bribes, kickbacks, and free labor. By contrast, Ohio's top two elected officials, U.S. Senators George Voinovich and Mike DeWine, have taken $7 million each in "contributions" since 1997.
According to our Cost-Benefit Analysis Department, donors could have bought 100 Traficants for the same price they purchased two measly senators (though at least the senators come equipped with The Plastic Helmet Look, a more respectable brand of politician hair).
Voinovich and DeWine would surely squawk about being compared to Traficant. They take "contributions." He took "bribes." We won't quibble over semantics. As the Great Philosopher Kopf notes, it's all the same. And it's clear that contributors are buying the same thing from the senators that contractors bought from Traficant.
Take Voinovich, who's received more money from chemical companies in the last two years -- $1,058,962 -- than any member of Congress. Now it just so happens that he sits on the Environment and Public Works Committee. And it just so happens that his environmental record might best be described as Three Mile Island meets Bhopal. Jeepers! What a coincidence!
As Traficant might have told the jury, "Look, I would have sold my ass to the chemical companies for 100 grand, tops. They could have put that $900,000 savings into job creation. You see where I'm going with this?"
Traficant could have further argued that his discount pricing makes for more efficient bribery. As any decent Mafia boss knows, you can't just bribe one cop and expect adequate protection. You have to bribe the whole precinct, from the captain down to the motorcycle guys working funeral detail.
Political donors use the same strategy. MBNA chief Al Lerner, for example, has given money to everyone from liberals like Bill Bradley to conservative nutbags like Phil Gramm. His company has dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars on Republican causes, but also kicked $150,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. If Al were to argue that his donations simply reflect his political beliefs, he would, by default, be confessing to clinical schizophrenia.
Traficant could have informed the jury: "Donations don't reflect free speech, as the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled. They reflect the inalienable right of every American to buy protection. And when you buy Jim Traficant, you're buying at my everyday low prices. Plus, I accept the coupons of all major politicians."
Traficant might also have argued that he is a more socially conscious purchase than the leading brand. Money spent on, say, Bob Taft goes largely to pay for TV commercials and political science majors, who scurry around his ankles saying things like "Gosh, Mr. Taft, capital idea!" and kill entire forests with their press releases.
Money spent on Traficant ends up in the hands of carpenters and guys who lay cement, decent Americans who made this country what it is today -- or at least what it used to be 50 years ago.
As Traficant might have said in his closing statement: "When Bob Taft hires yes-men, he lets 'em keep their whole salaries, the &%$#*8# moron. When Jim Traficant hires yes-men, 2,500 bucks a month is coming back my way. And I'm gonna blow the whole damn thing on hiring some guy to fix my barn.
"I'm Jim Traficant. I stimulate the economy. And you have my word on that."