Prosecution or PersecutionBy Andy Manatos
A gunshot rang out in the Russell Senate Office Building as U.S. Senator Lester Hunt pressed the end of the barrel of his gun to his temple. He experienced the destructive, often lethal, power of threatened national humiliation. A group of U.S. Senators, including Joseph McCarthy, attempted to secure their party’s majority of the Senate by keeping Senator Hunt from running for re-election. They threatened to have spread in headlines across America about his son’s 1954 arrest for gay activities, which were then considered scandalous.
National humiliation is a mega-weapon that carries life-shattering ramifications even when wielded honorably. For example, two U.S. Senators who were censured by the Senate in the 1950s and ’60s died prematurely in the wake of their national humiliation. Taken alone, the high-profile prosecution tarnishes reputations and careers with irrevocable consequence; it must only be applied to the indisputably guilty. Otherwise, we victimize the innocent.
Essential to the determination of indisputable guilt is presumed innocence. Today’s media-led portrayals of Congressional activities are too often presumed as nefarious. Ironically, this Congress is the cleanest in history and in the world. This negative presumption makes perfectly legitimate activities, like Congressional questioning of apparent agency wrongdoing, appear improperly motivated and against the public interest.
The Congress and agencies were better understood in the 1970s and ’80s when Senator Bill Proxmire gave his highly publicized “Golden Fleece Award.” His monthly prize, given to the worst example of agency misconduct, made the American public more aware of the need for Congressional oversight of agency transgressions.
Today, America is virtually unaware of the egregiousness of agency wrongdoing. Who knows of the recent case of a paraplegic widow of a WWII hero and Army general who had her pension, tax returns and social security checks withheld by the Veterans Administration (VA), to the tune of $140,000? Years of family efforts to secure her funds failed, and she was on the verge of being forced from her daughter’s home. At a contributor’s request, a Member of Congress raised it to the VA Secretary’s level and the widow’s funds were returned.
Or take the case of a builder who signed a contract with the federal government and fell victim to a foreman who wanted a different contractor. This foreman gave the builder a change-order with a 30-day deadline, withheld for 31 days his approval of the required change-order plans, and then fired the builder for missing the deadline. A Senator’s questions, urged by a contributor, corrected this agency wrongdoing.
Incorrect presumptions about Congressional oversight of agencies ignore the fact that Senators and members: (1) Come to Washington to spend significant amounts of time questioning apparent U.S. government wrongdoing; (2) Have no actual control over agencies except for the moral weight of their questions; (3) Have their questions essentially ignored by the agencies 99 percent of the time; (4) Gain information about questionable agency actions from many sources including friends, some of whom support their reelection; and (5) Scrupulously refuse to raise questions lacking in merit, regardless of who makes the request.
For those who work with the Congress, smelling the occasional crooks among the hard working public servants is not difficult. And, too frequently, we see the innocent attacked. The investigations and prosecution of Senators Ted Stevens, John McCain and national hero John Glenn come to mind, as does the impending case against Senator Bob Menendez.
Misuse of this life-shattering mega-weapon intruded into my life as a boy when my father discovered the slumped body of his boss, Senator Hunt. Its intrusion continues today into the lives of my friends.
• Two friends and likely-to-win Senate candidates lost Senate seats and their dreams due to unjust ethics investigations and prosecutions during their campaigns from which they were exonerated after the elections.
• An innocent friend was terribly humiliated before his neighbors, horrified family and the invited media as he was handcuffed and arrested at 5 a.m. in his nightclothes. The arrest and charges against my friend were dropped but they unnecessarily hurt his reputation and business, and he lost over $1 million in legal fees.
• Another later-exonerated friend lost his honor, hundreds of thousands in legal fees and his health. Friends attribute his early death to his acutely felt humiliation.
• And, finally, a very bright, very shy and very innocent high school friend escaped the humiliation of an unjust government prosecution by taking his own life.
Joseph Walsh said to Senator Joseph McCarthy, his era’s destroyer of lives in the sincere pursuit of wrongdoing, “Let us not assassinate this lad further, have you no sense of decency at long last?”