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Friday, October 16, 2009

More fallout from the Jack Abramoff investigation

The Washington Post reports today on the sentencing of Bush White House official David Safavian, former chief of staff at the General Services Administration. Safavian was convicted of lying to federal investigators about thousands of dollars worth of perks and benefits he received from corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff. I think it is useful to follow the ripples left by the Abramoff affair because he is the paradigmatic example of what is both great and problematic about snitching. The great version: a bad guy cuts a deal with the government that exposes even worse guys, or "bigger fish," and heightens public awareness of flaws in the system. This is the best argument for offering lenience to serious offenders--on balance it can create a greater public good, and indeed Abramoff's conviction and cooperation has led to numerous other convictions and stronger ethics rules. The problematic version: Abramoff received a four-year sentence for his massive and ongoing corruption, not to mention a lesser sentence on a totally unrelated fraud charge in Florida. Had Abramoff sold a tablespoon of crack cocaine he would have gotten more prison time. Moreover, his cooperation has resulted in convictions of just a few "big fish": Congressman Bob Ney, Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles, as well as today's Safavian. While there have been other related convictions, they have mostly been of aides, other lobbyists, or players less powerful and culpable than Abramoff himself. Were these convictions worth letting the poster-child for corrupt lobbying off so lightly? This is the perennial dilemma with snitches: it is very hard to know whether we are actually getting more security and justice by letting them off the hook, or whether we too easily forgive serious wrongdoing in the name of cooperation.