A Golden Age for Corruption

 In U.S.
Federal prosecutors didn’t have a great day on Thursday. In Newark, New Jersey, a judge declared a mistrial in the case of Senator Bob Menendez, the Democrat who was accused of taking gifts from a donor in exchange for government favors. The jury was deadlocked, though one member said 10 of the 12 jurors were in favor of acquittal.

Meanwhile, a short train ride away in Manhattan, another federal judge declared another mistrial, this time in the case of Norman Seabrook, a former New York City correction officers’ union chief who was on trial for funneling members’ pension funds into a high-risk investment scheme in exchange for kickbacks. That jury also deadlocked.

Even if neither Menendez nor Seabrook broke the law, neither situation feels good. Menendez and Salomon Melgen were good friends; Melgen paid for private jet flights and vacations for Menendez; and Menendez intervened on Melgen’s behalf in government, for example by calling diplomats to try to help Melgen’s girlfriends get visas to the United States. The question was whether these were illegal official favors bought and paid for by Melgen’s gifts, or were simply favors.

Seabrook, meanwhile, was accused of taking a cut in exchange for sending pension funds to a high-risk investment fund. Jurors couldn’t decide, but Seabrook’s high-rolling lifestyle, on a $300,000 salary, and his role as a crucial impediment to reform at New York’s deeply troubled Rikers Island prison, didn’t require court adjudication.

Prosecutors say they will try Seabrook again; it’s unclear whether Menendez will face another trial, though the 10-2 deadlock can’t be encouraging to the government. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday called for a Senate Ethics Committee probe of Menendez. “Senator Menendez was indicted on numerous federal felonies,” McConnell said in a statement. “He is one of only twelve U.S. senators to have been indicted in our history.”

If both men go free, however, they will be the latest examples in an emerging trend: People around the world, and Americans in particular, seem to be living through a golden age of corruption.

One could date the trend inside the U.S. to June 2016, when the Supreme Court overturned the corruption conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. It’s not that the justices found that McDonnell hadn’t done the things for which he was convicted; it’s that they decided that his favors on behalf of a friend who gave him more than $175,000 in gifts didn’t constitute legal corruption. As my colleague Matt Ford explained, the McDonnell decision played a key role in the Menendez case, with the judge nearly throwing the whole case out because of the Supreme Court’s verdict.

Since then, prosecutors have been stymied over and over. As U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara made his name racking up corruption convictions for major New York state politicians, including Sheldon Silver, the Democratic speaker of the New York State Assembly, and Dean Skelos, his Republican counterpart in the State Senate. In March, President Trump fired Bharara, despite having previously told him he would stay on. In July, Silver’s conviction was overturned, and two months later, so was Skelos’s.

The moment is not restrained to the U.S.—it is international, or perhaps more rightly transnational. Earlier this month, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists revealed a tranche of documents they called the Paradise Papers, a follow-up to the blockbuster 2015 Panama Papers. But in comparison, the Paradise Papers seemed to land with much less impact. That’s not because the behavior described in the Paradise Papers is necessarily less egregious; perhaps the problem is that the public is so news-saturated that fatigue prevented greater focus.

The documents implicated Queen Elizabeth II in dubious investments in the Cayman Islands, a notorious tax shelter. Apple, having remonstrated that it was not hiding its cash “on some Caribbean island,” devised a scheme to hide its cash on Jersey, an island in the English Channel, instead.

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