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September 15, 2014

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Jon Ralston on why, for Gov. Jim Gibbons, the best-case scenario to come out of the eTreppid scandal is legal bribery

It may be too late to quell the froth over the latest development in the never-sleepy burgh known as Gibbonsville, where every day holds the promise of a new gaffe or criminal probe. But surely even the rabid dogs, in a lather over revelations of an FBI investigation into the governor, have asked themselves this not-so-hypothetical question:

If you are a successful and presumably savvy businessman and your wife sends you an e-mail reminding you to "bring the money you promised" for a politician and his spouse, would you:

A. Call your wife on the phone and shower her with expletives for sending such an incriminating message in an e-mail.

B. E-mail her and scream through cyberspace: "Don't you ever send this kind of message to me! Erase this message from your computer right now!"

"B" is the answer that Warren Trepp, the software mogul and Friend of Jim, is alleged to have chosen after his wife, Jal, tried to jog his memory shortly before the Trepps and Gibbonses embarked on a Caribbean cruise. To believe those e-mails cited in a Wall Street Journal are real, you have to believe that both Trepps were either stupid or careless or arrogant enough to put such thoughts into e-mails instead of chatting in person or over the phone.

It is hard to believe, isn't it?

But if you subscribe to the truisms that smart people do stupid things, or that e-mails should never be sent (but often are) in anger, the authenticity of those missives becomes more credible. And why would anyone, even a disgruntled business partner (who is suing Trepp) or one of his agents, risk so much to fabricate the e-mails?

That, too, is hard to believe, isn't it?

What is not hard to believe, and is not open to any questions, is that the Trepps were more than friends of the Gibbonses - they were about to make a minor down payment on Dawn's congressional future and a major investment in Jim's gubernatorial hopes.

The e-mail exchange between the Trepps, if it indeed is not fabricated, occurred on March 22, 2005, a few days before the couple hosted the Gibbonses on that cruise. Records compiled by PoliticalMoneyLine show that the previous day the Trepps gave $8,400 in contributions (half of which later had to be refunded) to Dawn Gibbons' congressional campaign.

So if the contributions were given the day before the e-mails, how could the Trepps have been talking about campaign money?

Two years earlier a Trepp executive wrote an e-mail, the Journal reported, to his boss saying, "We need to take care of him (Gibbons) like we discussed." Was he talking about campaign cash? Five days later the Trepps maxed out to the Jim Gibbons congressional campaign.

Unburdened by the low federal campaign limits and the federal ban on corporate contributions, the Trepps were even friendlier on Aug. 30, 2005 - six months after the cruise. On that day the Trepps and eight entities connected to family business interests gave maximum $10,000 contributions - $90,000 bundled in all.

Now that is the definition of friendship. Or is it something more?

Sooner or later, you would hope, authorities will be able to determine the authenticity of the e-mails. But even the best case for the governor is not pretty. Here it is: He helped open doors for Trepp to get millions of dollars in government contracts and Trepp repaid him by giving him tens of thousands of dollars to help win the state's highest office.

The only difference - and I have made this argument before - is between illegal and legal bribery. Even if the e-mails are fake - and Gibbons better hope they are - the governor must deal with a different kind of corruption, a coziness with government supplicants that results in an unseemly quid pro quo.

This is more than friendship; this is an attempt at ownership, just as the gaming companies and other big business types that have bundled money to circumvent campaign contribution limits have sought to own a piece of Gibbons and many other elected officials. What they received as a return on that investment is determined by the quality of the politician.

So what is real, whether the e-mails are not, is the corruption given legitimacy by campaign finance laws designed to be flouted by the incumbents who designed them. We should know eventually whether the crime the governor committed was the usual misdemeanor, punishable only by media obloquy, or a more serious felony, where the penalties are much more severe.

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