So after years of rumors about improprieties in fundraising, Rep. Michael Grimm was finally indicted today by the federal government on charges that had absolutely nothing to do with the reason he came under suspicion. While others were charged or remain under investigation in connection with questionable fundraising for his campaign, the former Marine and FBI agent was not. But as has often been the case with federal investigations, once the government started sniffing around Grimm’s finances, they wound up uncovering other unrelated misdeeds that may well wind up putting him in jail and perhaps costing the Republican Party a competitive House seat. Grimm’s spokesman may call it a “politically motivated vendetta,” but it’s difficult to talk about politics in the context of what appears to be a cut and dried case of tax fraud and lying under oath resulting from the way the congressman cooked the books at a health food store he opened in Manhattan before heading down to Washington.
But the thing that really interests me about this story is the way it illustrates once again the arrogance of public officials and the way political power has a way of persuading people that the rules they seek to enforce with respect to others don’t apply to them. Michael Grim’s story is familiar in this sense as it resembles those of countless other members of Congress over the years who have run afoul of the law. But just because it is not unique doesn’t mean it isn’t important. What Grimm, like every other public official who breaks the law, teaches us is the necessity of not taking our politicians at face value. If our system is to thrive, accountability, even for those in the public eye who seem to be straight out of a computer program for successful politicians (as the clean-cut former military man was) is a necessity. Grimm is the exception that proves the rule that most members of Congress are decent, hardworking public servants. But anyone who questions the need to send at least a few non-career politicians who are rabble-rousers that don’t go along to get along at Capitol Hill should remember Grimm’s example when asked to treat the political class with deference. He may be an outlier in the sense that there was little doubt about the questionable nature of his conduct, but he is far from the only member of Congress who thinks he is above the law.
Grimm, a repulsive character who will probably best be remembered for an on-camera threat to throw a television reporter off a Capitol balcony for having the temerity to ask him about his legal troubles, is clearly finished in politics. The only political question about this story is not whether he can survive the case (he can’t) but whether the GOP can persuade him to quickly resign his seat and allow them to somehow field a candidate who has a chance to hold onto a district that is one of the few in the Greater New York region where they have a shot as well as a rare example of a genuine swing seat. Considering that Vito Fosella, the last Republican to hold that Staten Island-based seat, also went down in the flames of scandal (a DUI charge that led to the revelation that he was leading a double life), the party doesn’t have a very good track record in picking winners who can stay out of trouble. The fact that the indictment came days after the deadline for replacing Grimm on the ballot this November except by a legal subterfuge is evidence that the Justice Department’s motivations here are not pure. But it also means Grimm’s troubles point to a Democrat pick-up there this fall.
Yet none of that answers the question about why a former FBI agent thought he could get around the tax laws as well as possibly evading campaign finance rules. Perhaps Grimm’s knowledge of the ins and outs of the justice system led him to believe he could evade detection. But there was something in his demeanor when called upon to account for his problems that spoke to a sense that he was a uniquely privileged character who could do what he wanted. That this was a delusion in a 24/7 political news environment may never have occurred to him. As such, he will be branded as peculiar sort of sociopath. But the nature of his office does seem to breed this sort of attitude even among those who are not under federal investigation on both sides of the political aisle.
We may mourn the fact that people like Michael Grimm deepen our sense of cynicism about politics. But rather than lament a mythical lost innocence, we would do well to recognize that politicians are cut from the same cloth as the rest of humanity and are as vulnerable to avarice and sin as the rest of us. Politicians should neither be lionized nor demonized. Rather, what we must do is to remember James Madison’s famous words that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary” and apportion power to our representatives and the institutions they run with care.