Friday, December 26, 2008

Prey and Pay


Make it stop. Evil doers seem to have increasingly fallen into a delusory atonement...all with the abetment of the legal system.

How much cleaner and easier it seems to have become for major transgressions against individuals and the public to buy your way out. How much neater and simpler to attorneys general and prosecutors to take the check and say, "All square."

Consider just recently:
  • The commonwealth's Ethics Commission fined the governor's economic development aide $10,000 for sewing up the $350,000-a-year presidency of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council and using his state position to give that group's members tax breaks. He neither lost his job nor paid an onerous fine. Of the $10,000, he did not beg forgiveness and admit guilt, just saying, "I'm glad to have this matter resolved. I have a great job and I love coming to work every day to lead an organization that represents not just jobs and growth opportunities, but most importantly improving the lives of patients."
  • On a corporate level, Exxon Mobil bought off prosecution for a major diesel-fuel spill in Everett. It paid $6.1 million to settle a criminal charge. Because its management and operations folk did not maintain equipment, leading to the pollution, it also will have a court-appointed monitor there for three years. The clods who didn't do their jobs will remain unnamed and unpunished.
  • Ex-State Senator Dianne Wilkerson may be facing corruption charges, but she already bought her way out of charges that would have sent many of us to jail. She admitted to not paying income taxes for multiple years, civilly she fought and lost a trial that she stiffed her condo association and wrote them repeated bad checks, also she cut a deal with AG Martha Coakley for repeated campaign-finance violations. She too paid fines and wouldn't have spent a month in a halfway house if she hadn't also violated curfew.
  • In the most extreme of the recent bunch, Powers Fasteners paid $16 million to Boston and Massachusetts for dropping manslaughter charges from a tunnel ceiling-tile collapse that killed JP resident Milena Del Valle. Here again, this was tit for tat. There will be no prosecution of the company as a legal person nor any effort to identify responsible people at Powers.
Those are not unique, rather typical. At light and heavy, this behavior has occurred for ages.

Indulgences as they took detailed form in the middle ages required that a sinner:
  • Repent of a specific sin
  • Confess the sin
  • Pay a penalty
The back story includes the assumption that Jesus dying on the cross for all of us already brought us forgiveness for nearly everything. We just needed to complete the cycle.

In infamous reality, of course, in the medieval world and still somewhat now, people would and did buy indulgences. Rather than listening to specific liturgies, attending retreats or performing other acts of penance, folk let money be their atonement. Some even paid upfront.

With cynicism and expeditiousness, attorney generals, prosecutors, regulators and elected officials tamp down morality and legality alike. They'll take the clearly achievable. They'll do a Dick Nixon and proclaim victory by compromises and sellouts.

No doubt, it is easier to fine an offender rather than pursue an investigation and trial. The alleged enforcers can and do claim then that they swung the hammer of justice and exacted penalty and repentance.

Instead, we see fines for major corruption and campaign-finance violations equal to NFL penalties. Patriots' Wes Welker got a league penalty of $10,000 for a four-arm-flap snow angel beyond the end zone. Granted politicians get less pay on average, but that fine would be a major one for their corruption charges.

Yet, we simpleminded bluenoses remain unconvinced. What does a small or even moderate fine do? Do we have any fantasy that this will prevent others, or even the same evil doers, from repeating or varying their crimes? When the penalty is far less that what would compensate the victims, how would that dissuade the malefactors?

Swindlers and politicians do not use guns or even threat of violence. They do not commit petty drug offenses that bring long prison terms. They have enough money and buddies with money to afford more justice than someone from the low or middle classes.

The most cynical among us can say, "That's the way the system works." It doesn't have to and the message from the likes of our governor and incoming President should be that justice demands more than what someone can get by with and what is easy to negotiate with a defense team.

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