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The Year in Corruption

We’re in a new era of political scandal
Portraits of (from left to right): George Santos, Ken Paxton, Robert Menendez)

Who delivered America’s greatest political corruption scandal of 2023? There are many strong contenders, ranging from the comically corrupt Liar of Long Island, George Santos, to the mayor of New York, Eric Adams, who got himself into old-style on-the-take troubles, as did the gold-bar-hoarding senator from New Jersey, Robert Menendez. There were new revelations this year about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who deliberately set out to find a more affluent lifestyle by attaching himself to wealthy patrons who would provide him a fine RV, swanky vacations, and a home for his mother. Then there is the God-fearing attorney general of Texas, Ken Paxton, who used his public position to bend rules for a bankrupt real estate mogul and scandalized some of his fellow Republicans by running around Texas with a mistress, who was given a cushy job by said mogul.

The George Santos saga was surely the most entertaining scandal of the year. When he was elected to Congress as an unknown Republican from a Long Island district in 2022, it seemed like the kind of thing that happens every so often: some mouthy clown steps up and accidentally gets elected as a congressperson. But shortly after his surprise victory, the press got around to looking into his claims about his background. No, he did not seem to be a graduate of Baruch College who attended on a volleyball scholarship. No, he did not have an MBA from New York University. He lied about working at Citi Group and Goldman Sachs. He was not a well-off beneficiary of a family trust. Just about everything he told voters about his life was sloppily fictionalized. And, once he was elected, he seemed to assume that none of it really mattered. The voters had approved of him, elevated him to power, and sent him to Washington to do important work. So what’s the problem?

The problem was he had done a lot more than fib. He had embarrassed the wrong people, including some of his donors, and if it was proven that he had broken campaign finance laws, he would be a liability for the Republican Party. In February of this year, the House Committee on Ethics set up an investigative subcommittee. By November, the investigators had dug up all the dirt and published a fifty-six-page report full of bizarre details, such as the times he used donors’ campaign funds for Botox treatments at spas. On the first day of December, the House voted 311 to 114 to expel Santos, and thus he entered the history books: he’s only the sixth member of Congress to be expelled in the last two centuries. There was seldom a time in Santos’s short congressional career, though, when he wasn’t poised with a good quote. True to form, as he descended the Capitol steps for the last time he commented, “Why would I want to stay here? To hell with this place.”

Every year in American politics brings a garden variety of corruption cases.

There’s a lot to marvel at in the Santos story. The man was so completely unmoored from a normal person’s understanding of honesty, or fear of being found out, that it seemed possible we were witnessing an elaborate prank, a work of performance art—by a talent surpassing even the late Andy Kaufman. Another possibility was suggested by the congressional report: he was off his rocker. “Members of Representative Santos’ own campaign staff,” we are told, “viewed him as a ‘fabulist,’ whose penchant for telling lies was so concerning that he was encouraged to seek treatment.” In fact, almost a year before the election, his campaign staff had presented him with a 141-page “Vulnerability Report” detailing many of the fictions and rule-breaking they thought were likely to be exposed in the campaign. They advised him to drop out. He assured his staff the report was inaccurate and plowed ahead.

It’s true that Santos’s apparent role model, Donald Trump, has succeeded fabulously with a long career of brazen lying and law-breaking. But Trump has prevailed for so long because he understands how to gain and use power; he remade the Republican Party in his image and was able to keep wealthy interests in coalition with the shocktroops of the religious right. Santos is in real jeopardy now, without deep pockets or powerful friends. He may have what it takes to make a future for himself in celebrity trash culture, but he’s facing a twenty-three-count indictment on federal charges of conspiracy, wire fraud, false statements, falsification of records, etc., and is scheduled to go to trial next September.

As picaresque as the details of the Santos rise and fall are, and as mystifying as his character flaws may be, we’ve seen political corruption in every era that amounts to the same thing: an unscrupulous pol decides telling the truth and following the rules are no way to get ahead. If federal investigations into Eric Adams prove that he took money from Turkish government agents illegally, or if charges of bribery and influence-peddling against Robert Menendez stick, these will only be new episodes in a long tradition of American political corruption. It’s the variety that Lincoln Steffens wrote about in The Shame of the Cities (1904), in which he found officials in cities around the country using the power of public office to benefit friends and enrich themselves. He called corrupt officials “boodlers.” “Grifters” is the more common term today. Graft is the ever-present temptation in politics, then and now. It’s the assumption that politics, as Chicago newspaperman Mike Royko said, was meant to answer the simple question: “Where’s mine?”

The Ken Paxton case in Texas began as just another example of small-time corruption by the kind of minimally talented lawyer who seeks to improve his fortunes by winning a seat in the Texas legislature. Paxton served in the Texas House for ten years and made money on the side by taking up with William Mapp III, a businessman in his district who the SEC later alleged was raising money from investors by making fraudulent claims about his product. Paxton helped find these investors and was rewarded, in murky circumstances, with $100,000 worth of shares in the company. According to the SEC, Paxton met with Mapp at a Dairy Queen in McKinney, Texas, and said he was prepared to invest. But Mapp told him, “I can’t take your money. God doesn’t want me to take your money.” So, instead, he was given the shares as payment, according to the businessman, or as a gift, according to Paxton.

Paxton moved up from the Texas House to the state Senate in 2012 and two years later won a statewide race for attorney general. By this time, his shady business dealings were catching up with him. Shortly after he became AG, he was indicted by a grand jury on felony charges of securities fraud related to his dealings with Mapp. He has succeeded in delaying the trial for eight years, though it is now scheduled to begin in a Houston courtroom in April.

Those facts alone would not have caused him much trouble with the Republican-dominated legislature in Texas. But once he was attorney general, he went down the path one could have easily foreseen: he casually used his public office with no concern for ethical guardrails. He got mixed up with an Austin-based real-estate mogul named Nate Paul, who was also a friend and campaign contributor. By 2020, Paul was under investigation by the FBI, and so he appealed to his friend’s office for help. Paxton was so intent on finding ways to come to the aid of Paul that some of his top staffers began to worry he was putting himself in legal jeopardy. Eventually, eight of them took their concerns to the U.S. Department of Justice, alleging there was evidence of bribery and corruption. Paxton then fired the whistleblowers who hadn’t already resigned, in direct violation of a Texas statute that protects employees who report crimes.

Even then, Texas lawmakers would have been content to let things play out in the courts. But when four whistleblowers sued for wrongful termination, Paxton decided to apologize for calling them “rogue” employees and agreed to a settlement of $3.3 million—which he expected the taxpayers to pay. This is when the Republican Speaker of the House and several other leading Republicans decided things had gone too far. Paxton could not authorize the payment from public funds; that power lies with the legislature. As statehouse reporter Christopher Hooks explained it in Texas Monthly, “Paxton was asking them to eat a turd sandwich so he could protect himself from his own stupidity. It made them look bad. It made the party look bad.”

We don’t yet have a word for the kind of mission-driven corruption that the Texas Senate ratified in September.

One might think that the entire Republican Party in Texas would be Trumpified by now, but in fact a certain kind of earnest “rule of law Republican” still exists in the Texas House. House Speaker Dade Phelan, no fan of Paxton and often at odds with leaders of the Senate, was one. The House embarked on a quiet investigation of Paxton and decided there were grounds for his impeachment. The impeachment hearings in May dredged up the securities fraud allegations, the Nate Paul entanglements, and even evidence that Paxton—an ultra-conservative who professes his devotion to the Christian faith—was having an affair with a woman who was given a job in Austin in Nate Paul’s company. They drew up a list of twenty articles of impeachment, and on the last Saturday of May, the Republican-dominated House voted 121-23 to impeach, with more than two-thirds of Paxton’s own party members voting against him. The matter was then sent to the Texas Senate, where Paxton’s old seat was occupied by his wife, Angela, and where more than a few senators had served with him.

For a moment, it seemed possible that Paxton’s career would end in disgrace—as another Trump wannabe who didn’t have Trump’s ability to impose party discipline. Getting impeached by your own party in Texas? There hadn’t been anything remotely like it since Governor James “Pa” Ferguson was accused of financial misdeeds and booted from office in 1917. But when the Senate took up the impeachment in September, we saw the opposite result. Paxton, unlike Santos, had powerful friends and allies. Two West Texas billionaires, Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks, came to his aid. Their Defend Texas Liberty fund rushed a $3 million package of loans and donations to Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who would preside over the Senate trial. The thirty-one-member Senate has a nineteen to twelve Republican majority, and the Republicans understood that failing to support Paxton would put them at risk of facing a well-funded Republican challenger in the next election. Paxton’s wife would not be voting on her husband’s fate, but she attended the trial, observing silently from her usual Senate seat.

As the House’s articles of impeachment were shot down in the Senate on September 16, it was clear the fix was in. Patrick had made a show of presiding over the trial in an impartial manner but when it was over he delivered a blistering rebuke of the House, directly blaming the Speaker and lamenting that “millions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted on this impeachment.” Afterward, Paxton, along with the Defend Texas Liberty funders, set out to target Republicans who had voted for impeachment. (Donald Trump Jr. tweeted: “I’m looking forward to the upcoming 2024 primary season. RINO hunting season starts soon!!!”) He resumed his high-profile political crusades that play so well among his far-right base, making national news with an exceptionally cruel legal stunt in which he contested a court decision that would have allowed a Texas woman, Kate Cox, to obtain a medically necessary abortion. Paxton succeeded in getting the Texas Supreme Court to reverse the lower court’s ruling, but by that time Cox had left the state for medical care.

Every year in American politics brings a garden variety of corruption cases in which an inept politician is caught with a hand in the till, or a public official illegally intervenes to help a powerful crony, or is found by the FBI to have a stashed a few thousand dollars in the freezer or a few gold bars in their closet. The prodigious lying of George Santos was remarkable only in its antic compulsiveness. The Paxton case, though, is the one that shows us we are in new territory in American politics. It combined deception and the use of government to serve private interests at the public’s expense. But it was also melded with the power of extreme wealth devoted to an ideological and theocratic agenda. Dunn and Wilks, the billionaires who teamed up to save Paxton’s skin, are both aligned with extreme right-wing Christian politics, as is Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. They have pushed Texas toward harsh policies on abortion rights and transgender issues, for more religious education in schools, and they have strongly defended gun owners. For such figures, fealty to some imagined Christian purpose is the highest good. If any “rule of law” conservatives attempt to stand in the way, they are targeted as Republicans in Name Only. The rule of law becomes whatever a united Republican Party wants it to be.

There are specific terms for most varieties of political corruption: bribery, extortion, fraud, racketeering, influence-peddling. We don’t yet have a word for the kind of mission-driven corruption that the Texas Senate ratified in September. Some day, when historians look back, they may settle on a description that nods to the leader who has done the most to fight against the rule of law and American democracy by marshaling the power of wealth and the blessings of the Christian right. They may describe this powerful corrupting force as Trumpism.