Topic: Government & Politics

The Child Porn Politician’s Money

One of the slimier news stories that has largely avoided national coverage is that of former New Jersey Assemblyman Neil Cohen, who resigned his seat last July after child pornography was found on his state computer. Cohen had introduced legislation that weakened protection for children employed as actors by the film industry, so his fondness for the “performances” of the abused children in kiddie porn productions was, if possible, even more offensive than it would have normally been.

Now Cohen is standing trial. His campaign coffers still have some money left over from campaign contributions, and according to law, the money belongs to the campaign account. Cohen directed that $7,500 of the funds be contributed to his hometown Roselle, New Jersey Democratic Party, which accepted them.

Sensing an opportunity to further tar Cohen’s party with the Assemblyman’s miserable conduct, Union County GOP Chairman Phil Morin attacked, saying:

"The Roselle Democratic Party should be ashamed of themselves. Accepting a campaign donation from an alleged child pornographer who resigned his legislative position in disgrace is indefensible and continuing to hold those funds after his indictment is unconscionable. I urge the Roselle Democratic Party to immediately donate those funds to a worthy charity, such as to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to help in the fight against child pornography and to assist the only true victims of such a heinous crime. According to their website, financial donations to the NCMEC ‘help advance their mission to prevent child abduction and sexual exploitation' and ‘assist victims of abduction and sexual exploitation, their families and the professionals who serve them.'"


If the Roselle Democratic Party is really supposed to be ashamed of anything other than the fact that one of its members was a child porn fan, then it must have done something wrong itself. What, exactly, did it do wrong?

According to Morin, accepting a campaign donation from an alleged child porn fan who resigned his legislative position in disgrace is wrong. This is not really an accurate description of what happened, however. This is money given by contributors to one political candidate being transferred to that candidate’s party after the candidate becomes unable to serve. This is using donors’ money in a manner consistent with their original intent. Why would Morin find this offensive?

Apparently he regards the funds received from Cohen’s campaign account as “dirty money” that must be cleansed by passing it along to a charity that battles the exact conduct Cohen seems to appreciate. Try as I might, I can’t see Morin’s logic at all. Why would the same campaign money unwittingly given to a child porn-obsessed elected official be untouchable for his political party, but perfectly acceptable to an anti-child abuse organization? If the money is really tainted somehow by Cohen’s child porn activities, wouldn’t that make it especially offensive to the NMEC?

It would seem so. It appears that Morin is a little confused about what constitutes “dirty money.” Here’s a refresher course, Chairman:

Money is “dirty”—tainted to a degree that accepting it as a gift or in payment is itself wrong—when…

  • It was acquired by dishonest or otherwise disreputable means: robbery, drug trafficking, extortion.
  • It represents income or profit from activities abroad that the United States regards as immoral, illegal, or offensive to basic human rights, such as child labor or slavery.
  • It constitutes a bribe, a kickback, or quid pro quo payment.

Defining “dirty money” outside these three categories is problematic. For example, treating money as “dirty” that was earned with less than savory but tolerated business practices would wipe out the best works many of America’s most revered philanthropic institutions like the Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations. All of them were established in part to assuage the consciences of captains of industry (or their offspring) who made billions exploiting workers, squeezing competitors or bilking consumers.

Cohen’s money wasn’t even this dirty. It was acquired through the political campaign process, and as far as we know, wasn’t a bribe or acquired through fraud. If it is dirty money, money that sullies anyone who puts it in his or her pocket, then that must be because it was once owned by a hypocritical Congressman who liked child pornography. But it wasn’t contributed to Cohen because of that. The previous owners of the money contributed it for a legitimate political purpose that was foiled by Cohen’s conduct. It would seem fair and just for the funds to be given to a cause consistent with that purpose, the political party Cohen belonged to. Why is it so “heinous” for the party to facilitate that end?

The GOP Chairman was, one must conclude, talking ethics gibberish. There is no coherent offense, ethical or otherwise, in the Democratic Party accepting campaign donations given to candidate Cohen in good faith, before his illegal conduct and character flaws became known. If someone is neither listening carefully nor thinking very clearly, the accusation that accepting a legitimate donation of honestly acquired funds from a disreputable person is itself disreputable might seem logical.

But it isn’t. Neil Cohen may be revolting, but his campaign funds are just money.

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