“If one more Black man ends up in the news for flagrantly stealing a stupid amount of money, I’m going to scream,” I thought to myself last week. And then the story of Jerome Oberlton, former Chief Information Officer of Atlanta Public Schools, allegedly taking thousands of dollars in kickbacks in exchange for defrauding APS of almost $800,000 hit my inbox and, yeah, I screamed.
I don’t write many of these columns about politics and I usually try to stay away from shaming the bruhs, but I couldn’t do it this time. After the stealing scandals from Jesse Jackson Jr., Rep. Tyrone Brooks and now Oberlton one thing has become painfully obvious: our Black men don’t know how to steal.
Right now, Jackson is looking at spending four years in prison – real prison, not Club Fed – for stealing $750,000 in campaign contributions and spending it on plush accessories like a $43,000 Rolex. His wife, Sandra, even got caught and is now looking at spending 18 months in prison, herself.
Brooks, a longtime civil rights advocate, is in an even more serious situation than Jackson. The leader of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials is staring down the barrel of 30 counts of mail, wire and tax fraud, which altogether carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
Oberlton’s charge of conspiracy to defraud APS of $780,000 and accepting kickbacks has him looking at prison for five years and a fine of $250,000.
The problem isn’t that these politicians and public figures are stealing money, that’s what politicians do. The problem, and the reason they are getting caught, is that they’re stealing from the wrong people.
Brooks is charged with stealing from donors like the Coca-Cola Company ($400,000), Georgia Pacific Company ($140,000) and Northside Hospital ($240,000). Jackson is charged with stealing from companies like Terrazzo & Marble Supply, Exelon Corp, a Chicago area power company, and Royal Brush Manufacturing. In short, rich people.
You can’t steal from rich people and get away with it.
If you’re going to steal, you steal from regular folks – everyday, American taxpayers or at least people who don’t have lawyers on retainer. Not only will you not be facing 20 years in prison, but hardly anyone will bat an eyelash.
A great example of how to steal the right way is Congressman Stephen Fincher, a Republican from Tennessee. Fincher took in $3.48 million in taxpayer cash from 1999 to 2012, and $70,574 last year alone. But Fincher didn’t “steal” it, he had it given to him in U.S. taxpayer subsidies just like 15 other members of Congress did.
Much of Fincher’s money came from direct subsidy payments from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but folks like him and Rep. Robert Aderholt’s (R-Ala.), Rep. Kristi Noem (R- S.D.) and Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calf.) are also raking in cash from what’s called “enhanced crop insurance.” We taxpayers pay for the crop insurance policies wherein members of Congress and others riding the big agriculture gravy train collect huge insurance payouts on crops they plant knowing they will fail.
“The proposed crop insurance would allow — no, encourage — big farmers to plant corn on hillsides, in flood-threatened areas, even in drought-stricken areas, with subsidized premiums and deductibles, and see a big payout if” — should we say “when”? — “the crop fails or is damaged,” said Craig Cox, a senior vice president at the Environmental Working Group, the organization that studied and recently brought to light the congressional goldmine that is agriculture investment.
Not including Fincher’s haul, the trio of Representatives has garnered almost $2 million in subsidies since 1995 between them. Subsidies, for those who don’t know, is free money given to certain farmers or agriculture corporations designed to offset the possibility of them not making money.
Setting an even better example of how to steal and not get caught are Goldman Sachs executives like Lloyd Blankfein and Daniel Sparks. Blankfein and Sparks made billions for Goldman and millions for themselves by selling investors assets like mortgaged-backed securities (MBSs), collateralized mortgage obligations (CMOs) and various other assets that were literally made to fail during The Great Recession. It was the Wall Street equivalent of a street vendor selling a tourist a rock in a DVD player package.
There were something like, “a million fraud cases a year,” according to writers of the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations’ “Wall Street and the Financial Crisis: Anatomy of a Financial Collapse,” the 650-page report that exposed Goldman’s crimes.
Yet not a single Goldman Sachs employee has faced one criminal trial, the company settled with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for pennies on the dollar in civil court and Goldman continues the process to this day.
Their victims weren’t multi-national corporations or even Chicago area power companies; they were everyday, average Americans who wanted to own a home. So neither they nor anyone else who participated in the mass looting of American finances has or will face a day in prison.
In politics, stealing is the name of the game. Whether it’s through agriculture subsidies and crop insurance, lobbying or passing legislation in exchange for kickbacks and incentives, everybody’s doing it. What Jackson, Brooks and Oberlton forgot is which people you can steal from and which people you can’t.
Stealing from the wealthy is exactly what got Bernie Madoff sent to prison and a crime that will continue to be intolerable under any circumstances by the IRS, FBI and the U.S. government.
When rich people and corporations are on the losing end of a transaction, there is zero tolerance for malfeasance. That’s a lesson our next generation of Black public officials would do well to remember.