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FBI stung Sen. Yee, but Sacramento's worse corruption is legal

Here’s a stimulating debate topic: Is the welfare of the Bear Republic more threatened by a few legislators who receive illegal bribes or by an entire breed of politicians who take legal campaign donations from unnamed billionaires with an ideological agenda?

That is a particularly pertinent question right now, given that two California state senators have recently been caught up in FBI stings. In February, Sen. Ronald Calderon was hit with indictments on 24 felony counts, including accepting bribes totaling $100,000. Then, just days ago, Sen. Leland Yee was charged with conspiring to illegally deal in firearms, wire fraud and public corruption.

Yee’s case is especially galling. In public, he was a vocal advocate of gun control legislation. In private, he is alleged to have offered to obtain automatic weapons and rocket launchers worth $2 million for a man Yee believed was a mobster (he was an undercover FBI agent, of course). If it’s true, Yee was selling his services at a bargain rate – just $70,000. With those ill-gotten gains, he hoped to pay off a campaign debt left over from his unsuccessful run for San Francisco mayor and to fund a prospective candidacy for secretary of state.

Obviously, politicians who take bribes reside far down the scale of moral rectitude from George Washington. These days, though, such old-style political crooks are an aberration. Much more common is the elected official who funds his campaigns the legal way: by taking gobs of money from people with hidden names and self-interested intentions.

Year after year, hundreds of billions of anonymous dollars flood into campaigns all across the country -- presidential races, congressional contests, campaigns of would-be governors and state legislators and even state and local ballot measures. On contribution reports, the cash is invariably listed as a donation from a group with a benign, appealing name -- Americans for Responsible Leadership, Americans for Job Security, the Center to Protect Patient Rights, Moms for Apple Pie and the Flag.

That last name I made up. The other three are real organizations that poured money into California to oppose Gov. Jerry Brown’s measure to raise taxes and to support an initiative that would have made it tougher for labor unions to spend money on politics. In both cases, the big money lost, but voters still do not know for sure where the money came from. The best guess is that the three front organizations were funded by Charles and David Koch, the billionaire industrialists who have spread their fortune far and wide to back right-wing candidates and defeat unions, environmentalists, liberals and anyone else who might get in the way of their business interests.

The Kochs are now well known, but there are many more rich donors like them who have managed to stay in the shadows. Last month, the California Legislature was close to passing a bill that would have turned on a spotlight by requiring disclosure of all donor names. It failed by one vote in the state Senate, where it was supported by every Democrat and opposed by every Republican.

That political divide is hardly surprising, given that Republicans have benefited most from the dark money. Apparently, they would rather voters not know that those nice-sounding, “pro-liberty” nonprofits are really a front for absurdly rich businessmen who want to kill healthcare expansion, environmental protection, fair-wage campaigns and workers’ rights.

A San Francisco hoodlum nicknamed “Shrimp Boy” is accused of leading Sen. Yee astray, but the corruption wrought by Shrimp Boy is nothing compared with the damage being done to the American political system by the unseen leviathans of great wealth swimming in the dark depths in every Capitol from Sacramento to Washington.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times