In October 1974, Wilbur Mills, an 18-term US congressman from Arkansas, went for a late-night drive. As longtime chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee – which oversees government revenues – he was one of the most powerful members of Congress, perhaps the most powerful. Problem was, he forgot to turn on his lights.
When a cop pulled him over, Mills’s passenger, knowing a coming scandal when she saw one, jumped straight into Washington’s famous tidal pool. Actually, there were two scandals coming: 1) Mills was flat-out drunk, and 2) although he was married for some 40 years to the former Gertrude Billingsley, his waterlogged companion du soir was one Annabelle Battistella, also known as Fanne Foxe or the Argentine Firecracker when she was taking off her clothes at local strip joints.
A little less than a month later, Mills was reelected, and before November was over – perhaps unable to see the coming fallout through the thick haze of his political hubris – he showed up at one of Foxe’s performances in what can only be described as a well-inebriated state, and even held an impromptu press conference in her dressing room.
Within days, with the nationwide snickers, sneers and snide remarks mounting, he resigned from his committee chairmanship.
He never ran for office again.
Post-Congress, Mills turned his energies to furthering a pet cause, and today, 23 years after his death, his enduring legacies are the Wilbur D. Mills Treatment Center for Alcoholism and the Wilbur D. Mills Endowed Chairs on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse at the University of Arkansas Medical School.
I’M REMINDED of Mills and his late-night drive whenever I hear about high-ranking Israeli officials who misbehave. Which is to say, I think about him often (and why not, when Wikipedia has a long entry dedicated to “Israeli public officials convicted of crimes or misdemeanors”). Yet in a way, I admire him: Once gone, he never came back. He didn’t even try.
True, you can’t say this for all American pols gone bad.
In Connecticut, where I hail from, there’s an ex-governor who did federal time for corruption. Then, in 2014, at the height of an effort to rehabilitate his name through good works, he was convicted of hiding payments received for consulting services rendered to a failed candidate for Congress – which some saw as the beginning of a sly attempt to quietly return to the you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours world of politics. Instead, it netted him another 30 months in stir.
Downstate, a mayor sent away to do hard time for taking sizable kickbacks from developers he had hired to engineer the renaissance of his rotting city came back from prison to run for reelection this past November. And with a campaign The New York Times called “remarkable for its sheer audacity, coming after a widely publicized fall from grace,” he surprised everyone (possibly even himself) and actually won.
So I guess Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his cabinet and a whole lot of members of Knesset are saying that if Connecticut ex-cons can slither back into public life, Arye Deri can, too. And they’re right. After all, there’s a law here saying that any public figure convicted of a serious crime must cool his political heels for seven whole years following release from prison before trying to make a comeback.
Many call it the Deri Law, for it was enacted after the immensely charismatic leader of the Shas Party, serving as interior minister, was convicted of taking bribes and sent to jail for two years.
But as all optimists know, you can look at any half-empty glass the other way around, for the law indeed says you can return to public life. So here we are, with someone who could have gone quietly and established the Arye Mahlouf Deri Center for the Treatment of Dishonest Politicians, instead being given the green light to retake the Interior Ministry, the very scene of his crime.
TO PARAPHRASE an American president, ask not why someone has to wait seven years after engaging in theft or any other serious crime involving moral turpitude (and let’s face it, unless you’re Jean Valjean, any pol who uses his position of power to commit a serious crime is guilty of moral turpitude) – ask why it’s possible to come back at all.
The Israel Democracy Institute is asking.
The ability to return to public life “does not reflect a suitable public norm,” writes its vice president for research, Mordechai Kremnitzer, professor emeritus and former dean of the law faculty at Hebrew University. “Shouldn’t there be a law in place that would disallow an individual who has been convicted of political corruption (such as Deri or former prime minister Ehud Olmert) from serving as a public officer?” To that end, Kremnitzer and others have put forth an “18-Point Plan for Combating Corruption” in the public sphere.
“Candidates for public office,” the plan says, “must be men and women with an unblemished reputation. They must see public service as a mission that requires a unique ethos. Candidates who lack personal integrity and have engaged in government corruption should be publicly denounced – whether their actions are criminal offenses or violations of public and ethical norms.”
To be sure, one of the 18 suggestions seems semi-frivolous: “IDI recommends the establishment of a school of government [to] provide public servants with annual training that will equip them to identify conflicts of interest, deal with ethical issues and detect corruption.”
Another sounds downright silly. It calls for an “annual award that will honor one civil servant for an outstanding contribution to reducing corruption, and will be awarded in the presence of the president and prime minister.”
But one of the points gets straight to the heart of the matter: “Redefine the crime of ‘breach of trust and fraud’ – Article 284 of the Penal Code, which is vague and does not provide an adequate definition of breach of trust and fraud, will be replaced by a provision of law that sets out specific prohibitions for public servants....”
Another wisely calls for a reexamination of campaign finance laws. A third demands that the mechanism for coalition budgetary allocations be addressed because “funds that are allocated to recipients directly at the discretion of ministers and Knesset members, based on political affiliations, clearly facilitate corrupt behavior.”
Other smart parts of the plan call for increased use of public tenders, more independence for internal auditors and legal advisers, better government transparency in general, and enhanced school curricula stressing “basic concepts of political ethics.”
The IDI concludes by saying: “An effective battle against corruption must be based on deterrence, on increasing awareness of the types of activity that violate the ethics of the public service, and on refining the distinction between appropriate and inappropriate public conduct.”
WITH HOWLS of outrage over the Shas leader’s triumphant return, the IDI plan could be called the New Deri Law, or Deri 2.0. It would go a long way toward draining the fetid swamp that is Israeli politics, and reinstate at least some of the trust we have for people holding high office. It would reinstate some of mine.
If it is ever introduced as legislation, I assure you that the ever-ambitious Ehud Olmert, now on his way to prison for corruption, will be watching. Let’s convince him and everyone else that it’s time to emulate not the brazen and arrogant Arye Deri, but the thoroughly chastised and humbled Wilbur Mills.