Crime Under The Big Top

Wherever there are seedy gatherings, crime will inevitably find its way in. Wander down the garish circus alleyways filled with overstuffed clowns, who bark and beg at those with pockets filled with cash, and you’ll find greed and corruption. Sideshows offering a peek at the naked lady or the promise of a fortune told are magnets for the willing rubes under the Big Top.

I’m not talking about the usual circus–the one that comes into town with the animals and acrobats. This circus–the one I’m referring to–takes place every year under the Big Top of the State Capitol dome. The California State Legislature is the weirdest show on earth.

As a citizen, voter and taxpayer, I believed in the legislative process. The great deliberative and learned institution established to represent their constituents is little more than window-dressing on a sideshow tent. For a time, I was a politically appointed executive in the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation, responsible for representing the administration’s mission and policy choices in front of the legislature. I am not a political animal, so this “experience” was not a pleasant one, but I learned a few thing about our representative democracy.

Pay to Play: Just like the circus carnival sideshow, if you have the cash, you can ride all the rides. Money rules all under the Big Top. Lobbyists representing corporate interests and associations line up to testify at hearings. Re-election campaign contributions are on the line if the legislator votes the “wrong” way on a bill. A line of questioning at a hearing may be influenced by a well-timed contribution. State agencies are directed to “see what you can do for Company X and get them a contract.” The agency executives are in a tight spot when they respond back that you can’t simply gift a contract to someone, no matter how politically supportive they’ve been.

image by stanley jimmy via flickr creative commons

A Deep Fried Twinkie: When you grab one of the many deep fried delicacies from the circus food trucks, you’re never really sure what’s under that crispy, brown crust. It could be the Twinkie you ordered, or it could be whatever they swept up on the floor the night before–rodents, cockroaches, garbage, E. Coli. That is the very description of the sausage-like process of crafting legislation. A bill starts out supporting one policy position and during the process, the text is virtually gutted and replaced with something completely and starkly different. Another favorite is trailer bill language–little savory nuggets of funding, or program expansion tacked on at the last moment to secure support from another legislative caucus.

image by aaron weber via flickr creative commons

The Three Ring Circus: The main event, in the center ring for your enjoyment is the high profile legislator showing off his “do as I say, not as I do,” tricks. Not so long ago, State Senator Leland Yee introduced bill after bill of gun control, firearms restrictions and gun buy backs. I know where I live–on a conservative island in a very left leaning state, so gun control goes with the deal. To a point, I’m fine with the Senator doing what he feels is best for his constituents. But in 2014, the good Senator Yee was caught up in a FBI sting and arrested for corruption and arms trafficking. He was sentenced to prison for his role in an illegal international arms deal.

Three Card Monte: In the darker alleyways of the carnival, you always find that guy with his cardboard table, taking the unsuspecting for their coins. Under the Big Top, that guy is an elected legislator, shilling his constituents for votes in a district he doesn’t even live in. State Senator Rod Wright was convicted of multiple counts of voter fraud and perjury for claiming to live in Inglewood, but evidence presented at his trial showed a Baldwin Hills residence.

Watching legislation being made is a bit disturbing. All the illusions you held over the sanctity of the legislative process go up in flames. What really happens, for the most part, is keeping the money coming in for the next re-election campaign. The legislative sausage that comes out the end of the machine is a second thought. And so are we. It’s an environment ripe for crime, graft and corruption. This has to go into the next crime fiction story…but is it really fiction?


  1. Don’t forget the ringmaster who makes sure that all the members play the game. Failure to play moves one from top billing on a committee to collecting tickets at the gate.

    1. Absolutely! That is true at every level–local, state and national. The ringmaster is a puppet who pulls the strings another puppets to make the paying crowd happy.

  2. Delores · · Reply

    Yes, and you certainly know about falling on your sword for the good of the agency. Watching CSPAN I shake my head watching Ms. Speer (sp??) spouting out on hearings and sounding so high and mighty. Glad you are now writing novels…still waiting on number two!

    1. I was a popular pin cushion for the administration…I needed an armed escort out of one community town hall meeting. Such fun. I’m also glad to be on this side of that funhouse door.

  3. As someone who fought the State Franchise Tax Board for fourteen years – yup, sausage rules and we all get put through the grinder..

    1. From an insider’s viewpoint, it’s safe to say that so many elements of state government operate only to promote their ongoing existence. You hear the same excuse of “we’ve always done it that way,” over and over. It’s like a bad voicemail cycle – once you’re in, you’re not getting out.

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