Nader vs. The System: democracy at stake
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Pennsylvania's statewide political corruption scandal known wryly but too-narrowly as "Bonusgate" is the gift that just keeps on giving.
Ralph Nader is hoping it will give him a chance to clear his reputation, as well as the $81,102 in costs that the Commonwealth Court assessed him in 2004.
In this year of political upheaval, third-party candidates everywhere should hope for the same "gift," because the Nader judgment set a precedent that could have a "chilling effect," Mr. Nader's legal team says, on outsider candidacies nationwide.
Back in 2004, Democrats were desperate to keep Mr. Nader, the celebrated consumer activist, off the presidential ballot, fearing he'd siphon votes from John Kerry. They filed challenges to his candidacy in many states. In Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh-based attorneys for the international law firm Reed Smith led the effort.
"Based on news reports coming out of Philadelphia about how these [petition] signatures were being collected, some of my colleagues and I who are Democrats ... organized volunteers, more than a hundred, an enormous effort," said Reed Smith partner Dan Booker in an interview Friday. "It was all to tell us whether, if we went to court, we could prove that enough of these signatures were ineligible."
What wasn't known then -- not by the Nader camp or the public, anyway -- is that some of those "volunteers" were actually staffers in state Sen. Mike Veon's Beaver office, working on the taxpayers' dime.
The challenge was successful. In the Commonwealth Court's decision, President Judge James Gardner Colins characterized the Nader petitions as "the most deceitful and fraudulent exercise ever perpetrated upon this court."
To Nader attorney Oliver Hall's chagrin, "every reporter has repeated that quote," despite the fact that the court's own review of the petitions doesn't support Judge Colins' gross hyperbole. Only 687 (1.3 percent) of the signatures were found to be forgeries -- names like Mickey Mouse or Fred Flintstone, which the candidate called "sabotage and mischief."
The vast majority of signatures disallowed by the court were rejected on "narrow technical grounds," Mr. Hall said. "If a man's name is John Smith but he signs Johnny, or if John used to live on Oak Street and moved to Pine, that was invalidated."
Indeed, when the Nader team appealed to the state Supreme Court (and lost), Justice Thomas Saylor's dissent disagreed with the Commonwealth Court's standard, finding it "more stringent" than the General Assembly intended. He also rebuked the lower court -- that is, Judge Colins -- for exaggerating the fraud and thus impugning Mr. Nader's character.
"Ralph Nader has an unblemished record of 40-plus years of public service," said Mr. Hall. "It's been controversial to some that he would run for office, but his integrity has never been questioned."
In addition to the unjustified smear, the Nader camp continues to fight the costs they were assessed after losing the ballot challenge -- $81,102 to cover Reed Smith's expenses for stenographers and transcripts.
If the judgment stands, "Ralph Nader will become the first candidate in American history who's been penalized for running for office," Mr. Hall asserted. "Carl Romanelli will be the second."
As the Green Party candidate, Mr. Romanelli sought to run against Rick Santorum and Bob Casey Jr. in the 2006 Senate race, but was successfully challenged and assessed similar costs.
The court accused him of "bad faith," Mr. Hall noted, because like Mr. Nader he could not afford to hire someone to represent him in each of the numerous courtrooms where the petitions were being simultaneously reviewed.
"These are not wealthy people," Mr. Hall said, noting that Mr. Romanelli is now facing "the loss of house and home."
Candidates' being forced to pay the challengers' costs is "blatantly unconstitutional. You cannot chill the rights of third-party candidates to participate in the election process."
Reed Smith defends its effort to collect costs. "The very first time we appeared in Commonwealth Court," Mr. Booker recalled, "the chief judge said to me, 'You are asking the court to spend an incredible amount of time, and I want you to know if you're wrong, we're going to assess you costs' and he said to the defendants, 'If we find these petitions are invalid, we're going to impose costs on you.' "
In 2007, the case moved to the Washington, D.C., courts because that's where Mr. Nader's bank accounts are. The case continues on Wednesday in the D.C Court of Appeals, where we can expect more details to emerge and to be assessed -- including the illegal efforts of those "Bonusgate" state employees in preparing the original Nader challenge.
Having read all the Pennsylvania courts' decisions, the relevant Veon trial transcripts and the mere dribble of news coverage of this momentous matter, I am struck by several things: our legislators' arrogant disregard for the law, the dismissive attitude of so many jurists, the unsupported assertions in their decisions, and the depressing distance between what the law may allow and what we know is honorable and right.
I revere our two-party system, but when those parties fail us, there's nothing like a vigorous grass-roots challenge to restore some accountability. I'm no longer much of an optimist, but I'll take the Nader camp's indignant idealism over the other side's shrugging cynicism any day. The former is far better for the republic.
First Published April 19, 2010 12:00 am