T he indictment of three current and former Clark
County, Nev., and Las Vegas officials in conne
ction with a probe of alleged kickbacks from a strip-club owner would be a fairly routine story — a lucrative activity lots of people in government want to regulate heavily, which almost always leads to opportunities for corruption — but for one detail.
As the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported, the FBI used the USA Patriot Act to seize financial records of nightclub owner Michael Galardi and others.
Wait a minute. Didn’t the administration say, shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, that this act was needed to give the government more tools to go after terrorists or plots that threatened the lives of innocent Americans? Why invoke it in a relatively simple and localized case of alleged municipal corruption?
Well, it seems that Sec. 314 of the act allows federal investigators to obtain information from any financial institution regarding the accounts of people “engaged in or reasonably suspected, based on credible evidence, of engaging in terrorist acts or money-laundering activities.”
Not money-laundering in connection with terrorism but any money-laundering.
Nevada’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Harry Reid is outraged. “The law was intended for activities related to terrorism and not to naked women,” he told the Review-Journal. Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley said, “It was never my intention that the Patriot Act be used for garden-variety crimes and investigations.”
Maybe the legislators didn’t intend it that way. But the act was written broadly. We have heard U.S. attorneys acknowledge that it included powers they have long sought for ordinary criminal investigations as well as terrorist-related inquiries.
Those who insist that the lawmakers who passed it were well aware of this, however, are not quite correct. The bill was passed in haste. The final draft in its complete form — it had been cobbled together from Clinton-era proposals Republicans had rejected as dangerously enhancing federal power — was not available to most lawmakers at the time they voted on it in October 2001. That may reflect poorly on our elected representatives, but that’s what happened.
All this strengthens the case for letting parts of the Patriot Act expire in 2005, when they are scheduled to do so. It is dubious whether federal authorities needed to be involved in a local corruption case at all. And law enforcement already has tools to go after corruption.
As for terrorism, the emerging evidence suggests the biggest problem in pursuing suspects is overlapping bureaucracies that don’t share information, or bureaucracies that are too big and sclerotic to operate efficiently and let terrorists slip through surveillance nets. America needs to reform federal law enforcement in the direction of leanness and efficiency rather than giving more power to agencies that don’t know how to properly use the power they have.