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Why Some Politicians Can't Resist the Lure of Corrupt Acts

Do some politicians get into trouble because they believe they can get away with anything?

former Ohio Speaker of the House Larry Householder
As speaker of the Ohio House, Larry Householder was already in a position of power when he orchestrated bribery schemes. So what was the incentive?
Editor's Note: This article appears in Governing's Summer 2024 magazine. You can subscribe here.

It feels like we’re awash in public corruption cases these days, but most of them, however different the circumstances, seem to generate the same underlying question: What on earth made them do that?

The most intriguing of the recent ones for me is the case of Larry Householder, the former speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives, who is serving a 20-year prison term for orchestrating $60 million in bribes from a power company, which asked for a bailout of $1.3 billion for aging nuclear plants. Householder got it through the Legislature for them.

It’s not clear how much of this money Householder kept for himself; a good deal of it went to various Republican causes and candidates. But a separate indictment has charged that Householder built up credit card debt he failed to report in ethics filings and used money collected illegally to pay lawyers’ fees.

At the time his crimes were committed, Householder was in his late 50s and one of the most powerful politicians in Ohio. His career was far from over. Householder didn’t achieve power by being naïve. He ought to have known that his bribery scheme involved a large number of players and was overwhelmingly likely to be discovered before very long. He did it anyway. Why was that?

The judge who sentenced Householder had a simple explanation: “Beyond financial greed, I think you just liked power.” But that isn’t very satisfying. If what Householder really wanted was power, he should have behaved himself and held on to the power he had. He was smart enough to do that. But he didn’t.

The judge who sentenced Householder called him “a bully with a lust for power.
The state corruption cases of the past few decades include seemingly countless examples of bright politicians who should have known they were getting themselves in trouble. The late Gov. Edwin Edwards of Louisiana managed to escape bribery conviction during his third term and was returned to office for a fourth. It was during that last term that he took a bribe from a casino operator and ended up in federal prison.

You’d think that after the first experience, even the most ethically challenged officeholder would have the sense not to tempt fate again. Edwards, in the estimation of virtually everyone who knew him, was an intelligent man. But he couldn’t resist making an ethical mistake one more time. Perhaps bad behavior is sometimes just too deeply ingrained to resist.

Or it might be argued that for some politicians, it works a different way: After they dodge a bullet or two, they come to believe they can get away with anything. Winston Churchill once said that nothing was more exhilarating in life than to have someone shoot at you and miss. Maybe that applies to corruption as well as war.

But there’s evidence that a larger number of corruption cases evolve in still another sequence. In their recent book Look Again, the social scientists Cass Sunstein and Tali Sharot trace political corruption, along with other forms of dishonesty, to a process of habituation. Politicians make a small dip into the cookie jar, assuming that no one will notice and that it hardly matters anyway. When no one does notice, they take a larger risk, and eventually they are simply exercising a habit they find hard to break. “Your emotional response to your own dishonesty is initially strong but decreases over time,” write Sunstein and Sharot. “In politics, as elsewhere, repeated lying triggers emotional habituation that enables more and more lies.”

No doubt there is some truth to all these theories of political corruption. The most troubling question we face is what to do about it. A brief look at one state, New Jersey, tells us just how slippery the search for answers can become. New Jersey is notorious for stories of political malfeasance, symbolized in recent months by the travails of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat who has been accused of accepting gifts from foreign lobbyists to influence legislation.

What’s less well known is that New Jersey is also a center for reformist political watchdogs, including in recent years New Jersey Citizen Action and the Good Government Coalition of New Jersey, as well as a large number of reform institutes at its universities. It’s fair to ask whether New Jersey is really more corrupt than other states or whether the presence of a disproportionately large crew of investigators inflates the volume of cases discovered. You may feel the answer to this question is obvious. I’m not so sure.

Underlying this whole issue is the argument that the journalist Michael Kinsley once made: The real scandal isn’t violation of the laws; it’s the misdeeds that are legal. Politicians say many things they know to be untrue but perhaps the most common is their near-universal contention that campaign contributions, no matter how large, don’t influence the way they act. Ronald Reagan once insisted that when somebody sends him a donation, he isn’t buying their philosophy — they’re buying his. A moment of common sense tells us that this isn’t true: Organized interests don’t invest hundreds of millions of dollars to reward legislators for past behavior; they do it to influence future decisions. Any officeholder who denies this is either lying or hopelessly naïve. The first explanation is by far the most plausible.

I hope by now I’ve made the point that corruption has many human triggers, and that there is no simple way to deal with them. I hope you won’t mind my concluding with a lesson from one of the shrewdest politicians of the 20th century, Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago.

Daley (the elder, not his son, who also served as mayor) was nobody’s idea of a political saint. He wasn’t personally corrupt, but he allowed significant amounts of malfeasance to flourish in his Chicago. He believed that it took a certain amount of graft at the lower levels — among ward committeemen and even precinct captains — for his city government to function effectively. But he knew there were limits.

In the early years of Daley’s tenure, in the 1950s, the elected Cook County tax assessor was a man named Frank Keenan. Keenan was a skilled artist and he had a standard way of working. When a local businessman came to him for some relief on his assessment, Keenan asked him a question: How much would you be willing to pay me for a nice drawing of yourself? If the amount was high enough, the relief was granted.

Daley knew this was going on. When it became too blatant, and when Keenan became politically uncooperative, Daley pulled the trigger. It was not difficult for the mayor to use his leverage over the legal system to get Keenan indicted and convicted — on solid evidence — and eventually sent to prison for tax evasion. That may not be the purest way to deal with corruption, but it’s one way.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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