I noted last week that my district's U.S. Congressman, House Democratic Whip Jim Clyburn, was on the defensive regarding a recent hire for one of his state field offices.
As an African-American elected official in the South, Clyburn catches a lot of heat for bringing home the bacon. While some of the criticism he has received has been deserved (see: the James Clyburn Pedestrian Overpass in Columbia and the proposed Briggs-DeLaine-Pearson Connector in Lone Star, S.C.), it has seemed to me that most of the grief he gets has to do with the lingering effects of racism.
He himself acknowledged this to The State in 2004: "I am accustomed to having every project I undertake in predominantly African-American communities labeled as wasteful. These constituents and their communities are repeatedly ridiculed as nobodies living nowhere. They have been treated that way historically, and I am bound and determined to end such treatment."
A noble sentiment, but perhaps current events might warrant taking the short view.
Last Thursday, Clyburn felt compelled to defend his office's hiring of former Orangeburg County Council Chairman John Rickenbacker as a field representative. I say "former" because Rickenbacker was suspended from his office by Gov. Mark Sanford following indictment on federal bribery and extortion charges.
The charges, which carry a $250,000 fine and up to 10 years in prison, were the result of a corruption sting involving Rickenbacker's alleged receipt of money from an undercover FBI agent posing as a consultant to a company trying to privatize the Regional Medical Center in Orangeburg in 2005-06. The payments were somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000. Rickenbacker entered a plea to a reduced sentence about as quickly as the indictment was filed.
On April 7, Rickenbacker walked out of a halfway house after serving 366 days as a guest of the American taxpayers. Now the taxpayers get to continue subsidizing Rickenbacker with a federal salary that's somewhere around $50,000 a year. How nice for us.
Clyburn, whose personal rise to national prominence has come on the heels of the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal, parsed out the vagaries of employing a convicted extortionist to The State, saying Rickenbacker would be helping constituents fill out federal benefits claim forms. Clyburn asked, "How do you bribe a field representative who's helping you fill out forms to get your Social Security?"
He continued, "I don't see where anybody can make political hay out of this. Abramoff was stealing millions of dollars from Native Americans. This is nothing akin to that. [Rickenbacker] was not soliciting anything. He got caught in a sting. It's totally different."
Clyburn went further, telling The Times and Democrat in Orangeburg, "I think it is always important to give people a second chance. Everybody is subject to make a mistake, and when people make a mistake, they should not serve a lifetime regretting it."
I would point out that Rickenbacker's new job apparently will have him assisting local businesses implement the "Second Chance Act." This April 2008 federal legislation will help the recently-incarcerated transition back to polite society by providing private enterprise with incentives to employ former guests of the taxpayer.
While extending a second chance to a convicted felon is an admirable act, someone as smart as Clyburn shouldn't delude himself or waste his constituents' time by splitting hairs over how Rickenbacker found himself cooling his jets in a federal pen.
It just doesn't pass the smell test, period.