Blase about Bonusgate? You're guilty, too

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It's not often that the words of a defense attorney bring about a moral epiphany but, well, we live in strange times. Nowadays there's apparently nothing like a losing lawyer's umbrage to make you get religion.

Civic religion, anyway. Or so I hope.

To give others their due, this path toward enlightenment had been unfolding for some time. Our progress was goosed along through the Bonusgate months by cynical comments from bar-stool occupants, logic-challenged jurors and, sigh, yet other defense attorneys.

But the light-bulb moment came Friday morning, right after Brett Cott was sentenced to 21 to 60 months in jail. The former director of the House Democratic Campaign Committee had been convicted in March on only three of 42 counts for his role in illegally running political campaigns at the taxpayers' expense.

Mr. Cott's "extremely disappointed" attorney, Bryan Walk, complained, "There are drug dealers and violent offenders who don't get that much time."

Setting aside the hyperbole (c'mon -- name the last time a "violent offender" got a slap on the wrist), the real meat of Mr. Walk's statement is his suggestion that crimes like dealing drugs are worse for society than crimes like, oh, stealing millions of dollars from the state treasury, flagrantly violating the law in the very halls where the laws are written and rewarding yourselves with more millions for successfully pulling off your crimes.

The potential epiphany comes from realizing that a sizable chunk of the citizenry may actually agree with Mr. Walk's sentiments. After all, either Mr. Walk was just venting -- at length -- after losing, or he reasonably thought that his multifaceted "this isn't fair" spiel would resonate with enough of us to inspire sympathy for his client's next cause -- early parole.

If so-- if a majority of voters think the many and varied crimes that make up the Bonusgate scandal aren't worth the fuss -- then it's not just the Bonusgate villains who are corrupt. We are.

There's plenty of evidence to support this possibility. Here's a sampling:

1) After Mr. Cott and his co-defendants, including former state Rep. Mike Veon, were convicted, folks at a bar in Mr. Veon's old Beaver Falls empire proposed that Mr. Veon had gotten a raw deal. They regretted that if the voters hadn't turned him out of office following the stealth pay-raise, South Beaver would have gotten a nice new racetrack.

In short, ethics schmethics -- as long as you keep cutting us in on the action. (Cheers!)

2) Former state Sen. Frank LaGrotta publicly asserted there's so much wrongdoing in Harrisburg that the Bonusgate defendants shouldn't even be tried. He isn't the only one to make this argument; it was a big part of Mr. Veon's defense.

3) The jury foreman in the trial of Veon/Cott et al. explained that jurors decided it was "unfair" to convict the defendants for their illegal work on the 2004 Ralph Nader ballot challenge because "every Democrat across the state was doing this."

Remember those "violent offenders" Mr. Cott's attorney complained about? They don't have to pull the trigger to do hard time, they just have to be present at the scene when someone else does. These politicos knew they were part of a criminal conspiracy, but a jury of their peers refused to hold them accountable for their role.

4) In a recent essay on what a constitutional convention might address, law professor Bruce Ledewitz reminded us that the manner in which both the pay-raise and gambling legislation were produced defies state law. "If the courts refuse to enforce plain constitutional language," he wrote, "there is nothing a constitutional convention can do about it."

From Beaver bar stools to the state Supreme Court, then, a shrugging disregard for the rule of law runs deep. If it also runs wide -- if a majority of us just don't care about graft and malfeasance in the corridors of power -- then we are no longer who and what we claim to be.

A commonwealth is a political community established and maintained to seek the common good. We can't achieve the common good, or even determine what it is, if we don't agree to abide by the same set of rules.

If the majority is no longer interested in this enterprise, then we're not really a commonwealth. We're just a bunch of common thieves.


Ruth Ann Dailey: ruthanndailey@hotmail.com .


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