James C. Makens: What is extortion?
April 15, 2009
What constitutes extortion? If a private contractor was told that a substantial monetary contribution toward the care of a sick grandchild of a public figure was needed to ensure acceptance of a proposed development, would this be extortion? My guess is that a judge and jury would find this to be extortion even though sympathetic toward the sick child.
What, then, is the difference between this theoretical action for the benefit of an individual and an apparent similar action for an ailing project of elected officials? The front page of the April 7 Steamboat Today carried a story about the proposed Thunderhead development. The story informed us that the Atira Group had promised $2.6 million to support affordable housing in return for approval by City Council for Thunderhead. It went on to say that an additional $235,000 had been offered and that three City Council members had said, “Atira was on the right track toward winning approval.”
These are words that one expects from an old, black-and-white gangster movie, not public officials.
If elected officials anywhere wish to finance their pet project, then they have five choices: finance it from their own pockets; ask for donations and hope for the best; eliminate costs in some areas and substitute those funds for the new project; increase taxes to pay for the project; or issue bonds or some other public financial instruments. I suspect that our public officials are not willing or able to finance it themselves and know full well that the public would not support the other alternatives.
It might be argued that other communities employ the same tactics for the same purpose. This might be true, but we as adults should recall what our parents told us about wrong behavior and following the crowd into injurious and ethically questionable actions.
James C. Makens
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