As the Post explains, Thomas Esposito, the longtime mayor of Logan, W.Va., entered a plea agreement two years ago after being accused of paying the $6,500 bar tab of a local magistrate who was later indicted for extortion. The Justice Department then decided to have Esposito run a fake campaign for the state legislature to serve as "live bait" in a vote-buying sting operation. The FBI had Esposito give two men $2,000 to hand out in street money, then withdrew him from the race. Esposito received 2,000 votes anyway.
Such a scandal might seem quaint here in Washington, where people pay $2,000 to drop by congressional fundraisers every night of the week. But as a parable of our times, this small-town tale of small-change corruption is rich with meaning.
For starters, why is the FBI running a vote-buying sting in the state House of Delegates in West Virginia when there would appear to be so much more live bait in the United States House of Representatives?
Where's Abscam when we need it? In 1980, under a Democratic president, the FBI ran a bribery sting that sent a Democratic senator and four Democratic congressmen to jail. When it comes to bribery, the current Republican administration prefers to rely on the private sector.
As a general matter, I'm a big believer in market forces. But privatizing bribery is costing taxpayers a fortune. As Michael Kinsley observes, contractors shelled out $2.4 million to bribe Rep. Duke Cunningham and extorted $163 million in defense contracts in return. In 1980, the FBI persuaded congressmen to throw away their careers for a mere $25,000.
You can say this much about Jack Abramoff, Michael Scanlon, and Duke Cunningham: They may be thieves, but they've never been petty ones.
Then again, perhaps the House of Representatives is a giant FBI sting operation and we just don't know it yet. Maybe Justice Department higher-ups overturned their own lawyers and approved a seemingly illegal redistricting scheme in Texas as part of an elaborate FBI plan to entrap Tom DeLay.
W.Va. Confidential: As further proof, look at the FBI's impressive get-out-the-vote operation in West Virginia. In 2004, economist Alan Krueger estimated that both parties would pay about $50 a vote to mobilize voters in the presidential election. Michael Moore, who had already convinced voters to pay him a bundle for telling them what they wanted to hear in Fahrenheit 9/11, offered new Kerry voters a three-pack of Fruit of the Loom underwear—which adds up to at least $4.98 a vote, plus shipping.
But according to Gregory Campbell, the lawyer for a retired coal miner who was one of the bagmen in West Virginia, his client pocketed his half of the $2,000 and then said, "I ain't buying any votes." Esposito went on to win 2,000 votes even though he had pulled out of the race and the man he paid to pay off voters never lifted a finger.
The FBI's method—paying a retiree to do nothing—may lack the sophistication of the Democrats' 527s or Karl Rove's vaunted 72-Hour Project, but look at the results: 2,000 votes for $2,000. That's $1 per vote. Once again, the FBI—one of the most hidebound bureaucracies in the federal government—set the standard for efficiency.
The coal miner's lawyer tried to have charges dismissed on the grounds that the feds were corrupting democracy: "By placing a false candidate in the election, a sham candidate, one [the government] knew could not take office, every vote that was cast for Esposito was a vote that an honest voter could have cast for an honest candidate."