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Corruptions Dead Canaries

The routine levels of corruption in certain other states make Colorados governments seem positively saintly. Until recently, the states small size and streamlined governmental structures guaranteed the transparency of the political processdubious practices were easily understood and on display for all to see. But as times have changed, so has Colorados government. Isolated events over the last decade, like the coal miners canary, suggest that it is time to start thinking about the potential for corruption, and the steps that need to be taken to ensure that it does not take root here.

Corruption occurs when officials undermine the rule of law either by ignoring it or by abrogating government powers to their own use. Bribes and kickbacks are obviously corrupt. But corruption also occurs when public officials make a practice of giving special treatment to selected individuals or groups.

Special treatment undermines the principle of equal treatment under the law by politicizing the use of government power. With it, bureaucrats and elected officials can manipulate the regulatory environment to make it impossible for those in disfavor to compete. They can use public monies to fund the favored, and government resources to mount private media campaigns to push their private agendas.

The recent $85,000 loan by the South Suburban Parks and Recreation District to a political group a organized to fight the city of Greenwood Villages annexation of property currently in the Districts tax base is a clear case of special treatment. The District, a tax funded government organization in the south Denver metro area, required that the loan be paid back only in the event that the measure to block the annexation wins.

Apparently the District board neither knows nor cares that some of the people paying District taxes may favor the annexation. Nor does it care that the money it loaned was entrusted to it with the understanding that it be used to provide parks and recreational facilities. Taking tax money intended for parks and recreation and using it to fund a political campaign has nothing to do with recreation and nothing to do with good government. Such special treatment violates public trust and is just another form of corruption.

Obscure local boards are not the only government entities tainted with special treatment corruption. The state does it, in spades. Consider the 1994 tobacco tax initiative, a ballot measure proposed by a group called the Fair Share for Health Committee. Supposedly earmarked indigent health education and care, in the normal course of events the revenues from the $.50 a pack tax increase would have been administered by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (formerly the Colorado Department of Health).

Between 1992 and 1994, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation gave the Colorado Department of Health and the Governors Office more than $850,000 in exchange for promoting its policies. The Foundation, a staunch advocate of socialized medicine, had previously paid for millions of dollars of television advertising featuring Hillary Clinton in support of the Clinton campaign to nationalize health care. It promised the state millions more if the state performed as promised (follow-on money was more than $3,800,000 by mid-1998). In August 1994, Robert Wood Johnson awarded $1,000,000 to a group called the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Colorado. Though ostensibly for education a large chunk of the money was spent on television ads that ran before the election.

According to a 1994 article by Al Knight of the Denver Post, the Coalition had no office or staff of its own apart from state workers. Walter Snip Young, director of the states division of prevention programs, just happened to serve as the head of the Coalition, and its records just happened to be stored in state offices. In the grant proposal, Mr. Young proposed to conduct a statewide public education campaignnecessary for an increase in the Colorado tobacco excise tax and to conduct planning activities that will prepare us for the eventual tobacco tax revenues. While working for the Coalition, Mr. Young remained on the state payroll. He also directed the Fair Share for Health Committee.

Now this is a clear case of government officials abrogating government powers to promote a private political agenda. But it didnt violate the Campaign Reform Act prohibiting public agencies from using their resources in political contests because, as Secretary of State Vikki Buckley ruled, the health department ceased campaigning when the ballot measure went before the electorate as a petition.

These and other incidents are the dead canaries. Government organization should not make loans of public money and facilities for private purposes, accept grants from private entities, pass special legislation, or use government resources to plan and set-up educational campaigns. Unless one wants Colorado to become synonymous with corruption, the law needs revising.

Linda Gorman is a Senior Fellow at the Independence Institute.

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