Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Thumb on the Scales of Justice

George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm contains a series of commandments for the denizens of Manor Farm, which eventually boil down to “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." While Orwell’s story was a parable describing the former Soviet Union, this commandment rings true today in the World’s Greatest Democracy.

The Declaration of Independence asserts that it is “self-evident” that “all men are created equal.” But in reality the rich and powerful are clearly “more equal” than others.

A quick on-line search reveals the prison sentences that are given to those convicted here in Burlington County, NJ. Some examples:

• A man convicted of aggravated assault – 7 years.
• A man convicted of harassment – 120 days.
• A man convicted of terroristic threats – 3 years.
• A woman convicted of a drug offense – 71 days.

Without knowing the particulars of these cases, I trust that the criminal justice system worked, these people were guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and their sentences are deserved for what they did.

Yet, there is another whole class of citizens whose crimes (or in some cases alleged crimes) are at least as harmful as those described who have not served a single day in prison. The difference? They are part of the “more equal” powerful elite.

The late 1980s was the genesis of government-funded bailouts. At that time, a large number of banking institutions known as Savings and Loans failed due to deregulation of their industry. Among those was an institution known as Silverado Savings and Loan, of which Neil Bush was a director. Neil Bush is the son of the then Vice President, George H.W. Bush. While he denied any culpability, he was involved in approving bad loans to his business partners, and giving loans to himself. Eventually, the bailout of Silverado ended up costing us $1.3 billion. The younger Bush was never indicted on criminal charges, and ended up getting civil charges dropped for a measly (for him) $50,000 in an out of court settlement. Neil Bush never served a day in jail.

Also in the 1980s, Caspar Weinberger was Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Defense. He was involved in illegal arms sales during the Iran-Contra affair and was indicted in 1992. Before he could be tried, he was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush. Weinberger died in 2006 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, surrounded by genuine heroes. Caspar Weinberger never served a day in jail.

I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby was Chief of Staff to Vice President Dick Cheney when both were involved in what is nothing less than a treasonous act – the intentional outing of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame. While never tried for the outing of Plame, Libby was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice and received a 30 month prison sentence. He was immediately pardoned by President George W. Bush. Neither Scooter Libby nor Dick Cheney ever served a day in jail.

Some of the rich and powerful have not been so lucky. Jeffery Skilling of Enron, the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and Wall Street broker Bernard Madoff come to mind. All were convicted, sentenced, and jailed. But for every Madoff, there are dozens of Wall Street criminals who have taken the life savings of common Americans and filled their own coffers with obscene bonuses while crashing the American economy. Not one of the bankers who caused the 2008-2009 near-depression ever served a day in jail.

Today, there is a whole new class of criminals. They are the energy company executives of companies like Massey, BP, Transocean, and Halliburton, whose disdain for worker safety and environmental consequences has caused dozens of worker deaths and untold harm to our environment, not to mention the billions of taxpayer dollars that the next generation of Americans will be paying for the cleanup. Will these executives be brought to justice, or will they just have to incur the pompous wrath of Congressional hearings? If they are tried and convicted, it’s unlikely that President Obama will be as free with the pardon pen as the Bush nobility was, but an environmentally clueless future President Palin might.

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