As we know, money and politics mix together about as well as oil and water. Nevertheless, money is the mother’s milk of American politics, and that’s a sad state of affairs in the world’s greatest democracy.
We had a high-profile Silver State example of what money does to politics last week when former Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson, a Las Vegas Democrat, pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud charges for spending about $250,000 worth of campaign funds on personal expenses. Federal prosecutors recommend a sentence of 33 months in prison and fines of $250,000 for Atkinson when he’s sentenced in early July. Atkinson will ask for probation.
According to court documents, Atkinson spent $75,000 worth of campaign funds to open a Las Vegas nightclub, the Urban Lounge, where “he often hosted political fundraisers.” He also spent $100,000 to pay off personal credit cards, $20,000 to lease a Jaguar SUV, and $8,600 to repay a personal loan. Nice work if you can get it. And this is the person Senate Democrats chose to be their majority leader.
So how did Nevada Democrats react to the news Atkinson had been spending campaign funds on himself? I’d summarize their collective reaction this way: “He’s a nice guy, too bad he got caught.” That says a lot about what politicians of both parties think about mixing money and politics, and it’s a depressing commentary on 21st century politics in America.
Atkinson resigned from the Legislature earlier this month with a tearful statement on the Senate floor, admitting he had diverted campaign funds to personal use. Translation: “I’m sorry I got caught.” Republican Minority Leader James Settelmeyer, of Douglas County, described in press reports as Atkinson’s “longtime friend,” said his friend failed to keep campaign funds separate from personal funds. “I think we need to . . . find ways so that we don’t have these problems,” he said. Duh! This smacks of cozy relationships between lawmakers on opposite sides of the political aisle.
Nevada’s U.S. Attorney, Richard Trutanich, provided a different take on Atkinson’s crimes. “(This case) is a stark reminder that there are public officials . . . who lose their way,” he said. “When a candidate diverts campaign money . . . to line his own pockets, a donor’s confidence in our democratic process is undermined.” Well, forget about the donors for a moment. Atkinson undermined public trust in our democratic process.
I hasten to add that corruption is a bipartisan political activity. We need look no further than the Washington Swamp to see daily examples of how money corrupts politics. For example, President Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was recently sentenced to a total of seven years in prison for bank fraud, tax evasion, money laundering, perjury and witness tampering.
And then there’s Michael Cohen, the president’s former personal attorney and self-described “fixer,” who will soon go to prison for lying to Congress about several matters, including alleged payoffs to porn star Stormy Daniels and a Miss America contestant when President Trump owned the beauty pageant. Like a pair of angry second-graders, Trump and Cohen shout “Liar, liar, pants on fire!” at each other on a daily basis. This is the level of political discourse we’re “enjoying” these days, thanks to our thin-skinned, self-centered president; however, if he was as smart as he thinks he is, he’d know when to shut up.
I thought Trump was going to drain the Washington Swamp, not fill it up to the brim with the likes of Cohen and Manafort, an unsavory pair of convicted felons. I guess it’s business as usual in Washington after all.
Guy W. Farmer is the Appeal’s senior political columnist.