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Crime

Does scandal matter?

G-Sting, the guv’s missteps, Ensign—is anyone learning anything?

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Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

There’s a certain poetry to the news of former Clark County Commissioner Dario Herrera’s impending release from prison coinciding with the news of Sen. John Ensign’s extramarital affair. It offers balance—a feeling of replenishment in the scandal cycle. One dies, another one pops up, politics as usual. In this time of ubiquitous scarcity, it actually comes as some relief to know that some things are in infinite supply: nicely groomed, morally deformed politicians.

The former county commissioner, variously described by the media in the early 2000s as charming and handsome, a rising star and a great hope—and by this newspaper as 2003’s Man of the Year—was convicted in 2006 of 17 counts of conspiracy, wire fraud and extortion after taking money and services from Crazy Horse Too owner Michael Galardi.

It was a slow, flaming demise. For months—years, actually; from the time the feds raided the strip club and commissioners’ offices in late 2003 until the conviction of commissioners Herrera, Mary Kincaid-Chauncey, Lance Malone and Erin Kenny in 2006—the bribery scandal was foremost in local news.

More

Beyond the Weekly
Herrera will serve out sentence in Las Vegas (Las Vegas Sun, 6/17/09)
Trial will show two sides of fallen star (Las Vegas Sun, 3/12/06)
Ensign acknowledges extramarital affair (Las Vegas Sun, 6/16/09)
Former cocktail waitress sues governor, former sheriff (Las Vegas Sun, 10/14/08)

After their sentencing, as in all cycles of political scandal, G-Sting melted away. They went to prison. New commissioners were elected, county business went on. Soon, we’d pounce on the story of Gov. Jim Gibbons’ alleged assault of a cocktail waitress, and then his extramarital affair, followed by Ensign’s affair, and on and on.

But when the Review-Journal noted that Herrera may be inching close to early release on his 50-month sentence, it also made me wonder whether anything really is learned from these scandals. Does uncovering transgressions ever raise the collective ethical playing field—or does it inure all of us to corruption and philandering and ultimately make them more tolerable? Not that we shouldn’t call them out; just wondering here if scandal has any stopping power.

I wonder this not just because Herrera’s sentence was apparently shortened by federal guidelines that may allow him out in December after less than 40 months, which seems not to have drawn much public outrage, but also because the general admit/repent/wash-one’s-hands cycle of political scandal also seems to be quickening and thinning with the rest of pop culture. The New Republic’s political writer Michele Cottle already speculated that Ensign’s affair will probably not wound him much, as did Politico.com’s Manu Raju: “For some Republicans, Ensign has done all he needs to do. He drew applause during the Republicans’ Senate lunch, and Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) said afterward that ‘people deserve an opportunity to say “I’m sorry” and move on.’”

For Herrera, his punishment must feel plenty sufficient, too; he’s already spent 30 months in prison, having betrayed not exclusively his wife’s, but also his constituents’, trust—a bigger, more serious, money-involved offense. But as I think about the effects of transgression and repentance on Ensign’s marriage and his pious profile, I also think of the effects of G-Sting on local politics. Does Herrera’s completion of punishment—completion of the busted-and-punished cycle—make local government more trustworthy? (Or will he, could he, turn up in an influential role here again?)

“I am not sure if Herrera’s release will have much of an effect,” says David Damore, associate professor in UNLV’s political science department. He says the general impression of politics is continually sullied by the relentless scandals, and that repentance and punishment doesn’t necessarily alleviate that—or stop the cycle. We don’t pay enough attention to the specifics; we don’t distinguish between the players; we just remember that politicians lie. 

“In general, voters hold politicians in low regard, an attitude that seems to be continually reinforced by the escapades of Nevada elected officials, Jim Gibbons and John Ensign most recently. As such, voters are less likely to individuate—that is, Commissioner A is a good one, while Commissioner B is a bad one.  It is kind of like that old adage, you lay down with dogs, you wake up with fleas …

“This is not without consequences.  Low levels of political trust tend to drive down participation and a willingness to extend to government the latitude that is often necessary to address big, collective problems,” says Damore.

It’s kind of Shakespearean. The tragicomic nature of politics and scandal causes the electorate to screw itself. Tragicomically.

So, welcome back, Dario, Man of the Year. I feel nostalgic about the days when politicians were good-looking and corrupt and people were only interested in short-term finger-pointing instead of demanding significant accountability. Oh, wait.

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