Recently, Cincinnati councilman P.G. Sittenfeld was arrested for soliciting and accepting bribes. He is the third Cincinnati council member to be arrested for corruption this year, and the FBI has declared Cincinnati, like Dayton, has a “culture of corruption.” This is all old hat for Ohio cities. In the late ’70s the FBI came down hard on Summit County and Akron, inspiring a county charter to reorganize things to fix systemic issues. The same thing happened during the aughts in Cleveland. In the past we have gone over the systemic element: running major metropolitan areas like they’re old west towns opens the door to corruption. Today we will look at one part of this: pay.
Step 1: Increase Pay
We do not pay our elected officials enough. That may sound antithetical to everything we stand for at Reconstructing Dayton, where we tirelessly advocate for efficiency in government, but underpaying elected officials makes them vulnerable to graft. Especially small time graft like Sittenfeld and Dayton’s own Joey Williams have been charged with. We place these people in charge of contracts that are sometimes worth hundreds of millions of dollars and we pay them as much as school teachers (who are also underpaid).
According to The Buckeye Institute, Alexander “P.G.” Sittenfeld earns a salary of $60,646 as one of nine council members. That is slightly more respectable than a Dayton City Commissioner, who earns $48,337 as one of five. You may say to yourself, “Hey, that’s not a bad salary, especially for a part-time job!” You would be right. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to deter politicians from taking bribes. Compared to Joey Williams’ salary of $43,799 in 2017, some home renovations were a nice bonus. If the frequent arrests of local officials have demonstrated one thing, it’s that local officials believe accepting bribes is worth the risk.
A knee-jerk reaction would be to just increase the penalties for these crimes. But if there’s one thing that criminology teaches us, it’s that increased penalties do not deter crime. The only thing that really deters crime is money (it also does wonders to stop poverty). It would seem weird for an upper-middle class person to rob a bank, just as it would seem weird for a billionaire to embezzle. Sure, you can probably dig up some examples of those things happening, but they would clearly be cases of the exception proving the rule. Deterring crime does not work by increasing the risk side of the risk-reward ratio, it works by minimizing the reward. A bribe of $40,000 becomes minimized when a person is already making over $100,000 a year. The more an official makes, the more it would take to bribe them. That would make many bribes simply not worth the payoff for either party, and it would make them easier for law enforcement to detect as it is more difficult to shuffle around large amounts of money than small amounts.
Obtaining these positions has become costly. For instance Nan Whaley spent $450K to beat AJ Wagner to become a mayor who earns around $50,000 a year. When it costs so much to obtain a job that pays so little, we ensure that graft and political favors will become the norm. The constant quest to fill campaign chests leads to “pay to play” contracts where campaign donations equal promises of future favoritism.
There are a couple of major impediments to simply paying politicians more. The first is that it’s inefficient to do so. If we doubled the Dayton Mayor and Commissioner salaries, it would cost the city nearly $300,000. That’s actually not a lot for a big city like Dayton, but what if we did it for all the mayors and commissioners around the county? There’s Riverside, Moraine, Kettering, Trotwood, etc. Now we’re talking millions. And these are part time jobs!
Now let’s look at the county level. Montgomery County Commissioners already make over $100,000 per year. Although they are responsible for some fairly large contracts, the individual municipalities in the county actually have more power than the county itself. Why do we have this structure? Because it made sense in 1803. Today we could, and should, consolidate our local political institutions. That would allow us to pay our politicians more, make their jobs full-time, and make it easier for citizens, the media, and law enforcement to hold them accountable.
Step 2: Increase Transparency
Sittenfeld and Williams are actually odd examples of small-time graft. Sittenfeld came from old money and he was soliciting campaign money for votes. In other words, he wasn’t trying to personally enrich himself, he was attempting to set up a campaign war chest to fund his political ambitions. He easily could have gotten away with it if he weren’t so brazen about it and directly controlled the PAC where the money was directed. The Williams situation is perhaps even more bizarre. Joey Williams made a couple hundred thousand dollars a year as a bank president. The bribe he accepted amounted to a pittance of his overall wealth.
Do these facts put a dent in our argument that paying local politicians more will help stymie corruption? Yes and no. If anything, it points out that increased pay alone will not solve corruption problems. That both Sittenfeld and Williams so casually and brazenly accepted bribes—and were only caught because they were ensnared in FBI stings—indicates that corruption is much more widespread than the reported cases. This is largely due to a lack of transparency. It’s easy for elected officials to shift money around in shady ways. This is another key aspect of the risk/reward equation. People are much more likely to engage in criminal activity when they do not think they will get caught. Again from the National Institute of Justice:
The police deter crime when they do things that strengthen a criminal’s perception of the certainty of being caught. Strategies that use the police as “sentinels,” such as hot spots policing, are particularly effective. A criminal’s behavior is more likely to be influenced by seeing a police officer with handcuffs and a radio than by a new law increasing penalties.
Unfortunately, local police do not fight political corruption. The FBI does, and the FBI cannot be everywhere. They tend to go after high profile targets in big cities, make some arrests, and then move along. This is an ineffective deterrent and it does nothing to deter political corruption in smaller localities. Currently, it is difficult for citizens and journalists to “follow the money,” so it takes the resources of the FBI to track these things down. We went to the Hamilton County Board of Elections website to look at P.G. Sittenfeld’s campaign finance reports and they are not publicly available without making a public records request (and we thought Montgomery County’s Board of Elections site was bad!). We e-mailed the Hamilton County Board of Elections to let them know that they should post campaign finance records on their website and this was their reply:
Please let us know what candidate finance report scans you would like; at this point they are not available on our website. The Sec/State is providing software that can be used for this in the near future.
The key word here is “scans.” That means, like the Montgomery County Board of Elections website, once they actually make these reports publicly available they will just be .pdf documents that are often filled out by hand and scanned. That means they are not machine readable, which means they are not searchable. There could—and should—be searchable databases that allow citizens, journalists, and law enforcement to easily track down who gives money to whom. Not only do these .pdf documents hinder this process, they are also not ADA compliant, meaning that this information is not accessible to many people with disabilities. One of the ways money gets into campaign chests is by government contractors forcing their employees to donate. This is why, all donors must list their employer (and spouse’s employer) and all companies with contracts must list their employees as part of accepting contracts.
We also believe that quasi-government corporations should have open books. When a company wholly or primarily depends on government funding to function, they are essentially a government agency. While Ohio Sunshine Laws require quasi-government entities to respond to public records requests, these corporations are still allowed to function more opaquely than actual government agencies. These quasi-government entities should have open books, and searchable campaign finance reports should easily show when money circulates from these entities to politicians. These are the machines of graft, where money flows to political campaigns or directly into the pockets of politicians in exchange for big contracts.
There are other reforms we want to push for, such as instating a Chief Ethics Officer, but detailing this position will require a full post in the future.
They say that sunshine is the best disinfectant and it’s certainly true with corruption. Why would a wealthy man like Williams take such a small bribe? Why would Sittenfeld? Because they thought they could. Police corruption has long been an issue in the United States, and the recent proliferation of officers caught on video abusing their power has led to national unrest. But the truth is, police body cameras, which are often the evidence used to hold police officers accountable for their actions, are making policing safer and reduce citizen complaints about police officers. Williams’ crime is comparable to a police officer who accepts a bribe to look the other way. Sittenfeld’s is more akin to a police officer shaking someone down for “protection.” Either way, they are the result of a complete lack of transparency. By making candidate and donor financial information accessible and searchable, we effectively put body cameras on our politicians. We should also consider rewarding those who come forward to reveal corruptions—such as Chinedum Ndukwe, who exposed Sittenfeld—to incentivize the public to keep an eye on their public servants.
Until we can make the major structural changes needed, starting off by paying our local commissioners more and making their jobs full-time would be a good start. Tamaya Dennard, one of the Cincinnati Council members charged before Sittenfeld, was actually in a tough financial situation. Had Dennard been paid more, it seems unlikely that she would have solicited bribes. Paying less officials to do more also allows the public to be more aware of who’s in charge and who to hold accountable. As we have looked at before, too many elected officials leads to voter apathy because it seems too difficult to keep track of who does what and who is responsible for what. Another benefit of paying elected officials more is that more people will be inclined to run. No one wants to go up against Nan Whaley’s hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds for a job that pays $50,000 a year. By paying small salaries, we ensure that politicos such as Sittenfeld and Whaley, who have larger political aspirations, will dominate local offices with the support of big-fish-small-pond business leaders such as Joey Williams and Chris Shaw. Paying these politicians more will attract more competition.
In the future, we will look more at larger-scale corruption. It should come as no surprise that, unlike Williams and Sittenfeld, the people who get away with corruption are much more methodical. Oftentimes this type of corruption is done in ways that makes it technically legal, another problem we will look at.