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Don't bother them with news stories

COMMENTARY | December 26, 2007

Reporters in Iowa may be busy with the caucuses but they could have found time to cover a really questionable extortion case against a gay Democratic state senator.

Gilbert Cranberg

The national press flocked to Iowa for the caucuses evidently has been so focused on the political horse race that it missed a major story hiding, as it were, in plain sight. A Google search turned up no national coverage of the recent highly suspicious prosecution of Matt McCoy, a gay Democratic state senator from Des Moines.

McCoy faced a 20-year federal prison term after being charged with extortion under the Hobbs Act. The act sets a low bar for conviction of public officials. McCoy’s crime? A business spat over $2,000. The dispute he had with a salesman for a monitoring system for the elderly would have been appropriate for small-claims court mediation. Instead, when the salesman took his complaint to federal law enforcement, he found eager beavers. The FBI wired him and taped 11 hours of conversations with McCoy. That did not turn up much; the jury recently acquitted McCoy after a nine-day trial after deliberating less than two hours, including the time spent for lunch. The case against McCoy was so anorexic that not one of the 12 jurors considered it worth protracted consideration.

Public corruption is not a priority set for his office by U.S. attorney Matt Whitaker. Yet for two years the FBI and at least four assistant U.S. attorneys, including a specialist sent from Washington, worked on the case.

Among the noteworthy – and newsworthy – features of the case was denial for months by prosecutors that they paid the chief complaining witness. The admission that he was on the government’s payroll was made as the case neared trial. The local criminal defense bar was stunned that the government had to pay the alleged victim for his help prosecuting his purported victimizer.

Cases of this sort are understood to require clearance from the Justice Department in Washington. Instead of nixing such as obviously petty case, it okayed it and added a lawyer to the prosecution team.

It’s surprising that the national press did not see the McCoy case in the context of the reports of politicized prosecutions by the Justice Department. The reports include a recent University of Minnesota study described in the Des Moines Register as showing that “for every elected Republican the Justice Department has investigated during the George W. Bush years, seven elected Democrats have been investigated.”

The Iowa caucuses are big news. But at least some of the newshounds drawn to Iowa should have picked up on the McCoy case. It would have been a lot more interesting, and significant, than some of the repetitious speechifying by the candidates.

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