By Tom Still
MADISON – As he began his 60-day jail sentence for political corruption, former Assembly Majority Leader Steve “Mickey” Foti lashed out against the district attorney who prosecuted him and the judge who presided over his trial. Why was he going to jail, Foti asked, when other state legislators had done much the same thing in the past?
“… Do you have a 30-year record of people claiming they all did it?” Foti told reporters as he checked into the Dane County Jail. “From (former Assembly Speaker) Tom Loftus who wrote a book about the way he did it… to David Prosser, who serves on the Supreme Court, claiming he did it.”
I’ve never quite thought of the Loftus book (“The Art of Legislative Politics”) as a thief’s manual, and I will forever have trouble imaging the soft-spoken, cerebral Prosser as a Wisconsin version of Tom DeLay. Those personal prejudices aside, there’s a larger point imbedded in Foti’s parting blast: Will anything really change by throwing him or other legislators convicted in the Capitol’s “caucus scandal” behind bars?
Having been an opinion-monger for years, I know the editorial writers’ standard lines on this subject: “Unless Sen. Smith or Rep. Jones does some serious jail time, the judicial system will not have sent a strong message to others like them.” Or, even more direct: “The people’s faith in the system will not be restored unless Sen. Smith spends a year breaking big rocks into little rocks.”
Sorry, but I’m not sure I buy the company line. The judicial system sends its strongest message by bringing evidence of crimes to public light, running a fair trial and asking a citizen-jury to determine the truth. That’s the real deterrent to bad political behavior. Public faith in politics won’t be restored if a few more elected officials wear numbers across their chests. It might be restored, however, if those offending politicians were forced to talk about it – in a very public way – as atonement for their crimes.
That brings me to Scott Jensen, the former Assembly Speaker whose defense in court sounded a lot like Foti’s jailhouse farewell: “I’m not the only Capitol leader to use taxpayer resources to underwrite political campaigns.” Not the greatest defense, but, as it turns out, it was pretty much all Jensen had to go on. That, and the fact he never personally profited by his own acts.
Republican Jensen is now awaiting sentencing on his felony convictions. It’s not a question of whether he’s guilty – the jury has said so – but a question of what should happen to him next. I think extended jail time for Jensen would be a waste. Instead, he should be sentenced to talk.
He should talk to Rotary Clubs. He should talk to high-school classes. He should talk to “good-government” groups and neighborhood garden clubs. He should talk to anyone willing to hear about what’s wrong with political campaigns in Wisconsin, and who cares about how ordinary people can fix what’s broken.
He should also be sentenced to write. Who better to write about the ins and outs of reforming Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws than the ever-eloquent Scott Jensen? As a convicted felon, he’ll never run for political office again, so let’s harness his knowledge about how to keep incumbents elected to devise a plan that gives challengers a fighting chance.
Few people played the high-stakes reapportionment game better than Jensen. He could also be sentenced to write a plan for fairly remapping the state’s 132 legislative districts and eight congressional districts in time for the 2010 census. Heck, for good measure, Dane County Circuit Judge Steven Ebert could even sentence Jensen to draw the map with former Senate Minority Leader Chuck Chvala, a Democrat taken down in the caucus scandal. If you really want competitive elections in Wisconsin, you must begin by mapping honest boundaries.
Neither Jensen nor any other legislator found guilty of political corruption is a danger to society – unless, of course, they’re simply locked up and the lessons of the caucus scandal are forgotten before they can be learned. Make him talk, judge.
Still is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal. He covered state politics for more than 20 years.