Spare the Rod

by Jonathan Chait | February 18, 2009

I FULLY REALIZE that few complaints are more tiresome than “your party’s scandal is worse than my party’s scandal.” But indulge me for a moment. I can’t think of a good reason why Rod Blagojevich has become the most hated man in America while Norm Coleman still walks the streets with his head held high.

What, you say—Norm Coleman? Yes, Norm Coleman! Let me explain. The soon-to- be-former senator’s scandal is pretty simple. Nasser Kazeminy, a wealthy businessman and close Coleman friend, allegedly paid him $75,000 under the table. 

And by “allegedly,” I mean “almost certainly.” Here’s how the almost certainly true alleged scheme worked. The payments to Coleman came in the form of what Tony Soprano would call a “no-show job.” One of Kazeminy’s companies is called Deep Marine Technology. Kazeminy allegedly ordered Deep Marine’s CEO, Paul McKim, to make a series of $25,000 payments that would go to Coleman’s wife. According to McKim, Kazeminy was utterly blatant. He said the reason for the payments was that Coleman needed the money and McKim should disguise them as a legitimate business transaction. 

The intermediary they picked was an insurance company owned by Jim Hays, a major Coleman donor who had given contracting work to Coleman’s wife, Laurie. Hays admits getting the $75,000, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, but says he “provide[d] insurance advice” to Deep Marine and denies the money went to Laurie Coleman. 

This is very hard to believe. Deep Marine was already paying $1 million per year for insurance from a London company that specializes in underwater offshore lines, which is Deep Marine’s business. And Laurie Coleman, who had only recently become a licensed insurance rep after a career as a model and actress, “can’t legally write insurance policies because she has no association or ‘appointment’ with an insurer,” the paper reported. It’s possible Laurie Coleman never got the money from Hays, or got it but never informed her husband. But keep in mind that Kazeminy is, by Coleman’s own account, a longtime, “very dear” friend. It’s hard to imagine him working with Laurie behind Norm’s back, or not confirming that his gift was received by its intended recipient. 

McKim (a Republican) grudgingly agreed to the first three payments but quit rather than make the fourth, and he is now suing Kazeminy, as is a group of Deep Marine shareholders. The FBI is reportedly investigating as well. 

If you’re inclined to think that maybe Coleman has simply been victimized by a bizarre series of coincidences, it’s worth keeping some recent history in mind. Coleman has also been embroiled in a minor scandal in which he rented a Capitol Hill apartment from a Republican lobbyist for the preposterously low sum of $600 a month. He has also let Kazeminy fly him on his private jet to locales like Paris and the Bahamas and, reportedly, buy him expensive suits. So the latest scandal wouldn’t exactly fly in the face of everything we know about Coleman. 

Of course, Coleman has not yet been proven to have committed a crime. But the same can be said of a certain floppy-haired former Illinois governor whose guilt has nevertheless been universally assumed. The comparison between Coleman and Blagojevich is instructive because the allegations entail the same basic crime, which is to leverage political power for personal gain. 

Some differences in the scale of relative guilt do present themselves. In Coleman’s defense, he’s currently just a subject of an FBI investigation, while Blagojevich has been voted out of office. And, of course, Coleman hasn’t been caught boasting about his scheme. On the other hand, Coleman is accused by a Houston businessman of having actually accepted illicit funds, while Blagojevich is merely being accused of harboring an intention to sell his Senate seat. 

Now consider how the two stories have fared in the national press. Blagojevich has turned into the biggest crime story since O.J. Simpson. Can you guess how many articles about the Coleman scandal have appeared in the national media? One short wire story. When I bring up Coleman’s scandals with my colleagues, many of whom follow politics for a living, invariably they have little or no idea what I’m talking about. 

I confess that, by comparing Coleman with Blagojevich, I’ve stacked the deck a bit. Any political scandal is going to appear underplayed next to Blagojevich’s. What propelled Blagojevich into a pop-culture phenomenon was, first, that he was caught on tape making the sorts of crude calculations that no doubt go on behind closed doors in Washington and state capitols every day. Then Patrick Fitzgerald, a telegenic and already famous prosecutor, denounced Blagojevich in the most florid terms (”cynical,” “appalling,” “a new low,” etc. ). While Illinois rules against jury-tainting forbid prosecutors from making such statements, the effect of Fitzgerald’s blatant misconduct was to further lower public esteem of the accused rather than the accuser. 

But, of course, this is just my point: These scandals are as much a function of perception and mass psychology as anything to do with the underlying merits. Coleman benefited from his race against Al Franken, whose very candidacy struck many people as a joke (unfairly, I think). Coleman, a pro-Bush Republican running in a blue state, based his campaign on Franken’s characterological unfitness for office and managed to acquire the trappings of the good- government candidate. 

None of these factors, however, make the disparate treatment of Blagojevich and Coleman any less bizarre. Blagojevich’s fellow Democrats have treated him like a war criminal. Not only did they rush to pronounce him guilty, they fought tooth and nail to deny a Senate seat to his appointee Roland Burris, without requiring even the whiff of wrongdoing on Burris’s part. 

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are staunchly defending Coleman’s hopeless legal challenge to overturn Franken’s victory. Last week, the Republican Jewish Coalition hired Coleman as a spokesman. The RJC announced, “we are eager for him to travel across the country on our behalf and to be an important voice within the organization.” Republicans aren’t just defending Coleman, they’re going out of their way to keep him in the public eye! Do they even realize this man is being investigated by the FBI?

This article appeared in the February 18, 2009 issue of the magazine.

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