I had better start, I realize, by disavowing both the title and subtitle above. Democratic Campaign Treasurer Kinde Durkee — who just accepted a sentence of 8 years and a month in prison and an obligation to make $10.5 million in restitution for her crimes — did a lot of harm to the Democratic Party in California as well as its constituent and affiliated groups and politicians. (These include the Democratic Party of Orange County, for which I emphatically do not speak.) So “sympathy” here is a relative term (and given the Rolling Stones context in which I invoke it, obviously a conflicted one.) I still hate what she did — but I’ve come to better understand how it may have come about, which provides a lesson about political participation that is worth learning.
Here, before I get too sympathetic, let me offer you this. If you want to be furious with Durkee, here’s a list of articles from the wonderful site Talking Points Memo, which has had one of the better, earlier, and thoughtful takes on the story from the beginning, that will remind you of her various crimes. Her victims included The roster of victims also included Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Reps. Loretta Sanchez, Linda Sanchez, and Susan Davis; state Sen. Lou Correa; Assemblyman Jose Solorio; Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang, the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, the Orange County Democratic Party (though not much due to her arrest just prior to our annual fundraiser), and Orange County Young Democrats (just after their major fundraiser.) They also included competing campaign Treasurers who lost business (and in some cases may have had to close down or fire employees) because they couldn’t compete with her excellent rates.
I don’t excuse that, OK? But I will say that I’m coming to this conclusion:
Kinde Durkee was to some extent like “Ado Annie” from the musical Oklahoma: “just a girl who cain’t say no.” The services cadged off of her, though, were not romantic but financial. Lots of people don’t get the reference, so strap yourself to whatever chair you’re sitting in and listen to Gloria Grahame bray wonderfully through her rendition of the song by the same name:
Get it? OK, I’d better explain. But first, yet another disavowal: I’m basing my reaction to Durkee, largely on my reaction to how her attorney presents her situation. As an attorney myself, maybe I should know better. But the description rings true to me, as one who has been involved in the OC political scene for almost six years. It doesn’t justify exculpation — which, to her credit, Durkee did not seek at her sentencing hearing — but sympathy? Call me weak if you must, but — yes, it does.
Here’s what Durkee had to say in court:
“I want to take this opportunity to apologize for my actions,” Durkee said in a brief statement to the court. “To those who trusted me and I betrayed, to those who counted on me and I let down, to those who depended on me and I disappointed, I take full and compete responsibility for what I have done. I’m truly sorry for the hurt I caused to my former clients, my former employees, my friends and my family.”
That, frankly, doesn’t much impress me — except in comparison to those who lack even that much decency. It’s what her attorney had to say that got to me a bit:
Here’s what her attorney, Daniel V. Nixon, said about her, the first paragraph in a summary from the Sacramento Bee story linked above; the second in a court document:
The longtime treasurer’s attorney said she took the money not to fund a lavish lifestyle, but to keep her Burbank-based firm, Durkee & Associates, afloat amid financial struggles. He said she began “borrowing” money from accounts to cover the bills and keep accounts instead of laying off under-performing employees or confronting clients who stiffed the firm on payments. Her husband’s unemployment and elderly parents in need of care also contributed to her personal financial issues, the attorney said.
“Although a significant amount of money was used to pay for personal expenses, including mortgage payments and credit card charges, a great deal of the stolen funds were used to keep the business afloat and her employees employed. Unfortunately, it spiraled out of control, she lost track of the amount of the shortfall and it ultimately reached a level that she will be unable to repay in her lifetime.”
Impressed? I’m not. That’s how embezzlement usually works. There’s a seemingly good reason to borrow funds during a shortfall, and then one both continues the practice and gets used to it. The same think happened to Bernie Madoff. That doesn’t move me. What moves me is this:
Daniel Nixon, an attorney for Durkee, said in a pre-sentencing report that she was incapable of managing her business partly because of her fear of conflict, which led her to let candidates’ bills go unpaid and refuse to fire incompetent staff.
Nixon and prosecutors said Durkee ran the equivalent of a shell game through the Burbank office of Durkee & Associates.
“Although the number of clients grew, so did the number of non-paying clients, and Ms. Durkee found that she had trouble confronting her clients to collect payment,” according to her attorney’s report.
The pre-sentencing report also said she has always been known as a kind and generous woman, and that she did not lead a lavish lifestyle. Durkee’s husband of nearly 30 years, John Forgy, has been unemployed for more than 15 years, “which increased the financial pressure on Ms. Durkee to support them,” the report said.
I’m skipping over “fear of conflict” and “refusal to fire [allegedly] incompetent staff” (though I appreciate it when a boss tries not to be a jerk to employees, if that’s all this actually means.) I’m also skipping over her long-term unemployed husband and long-term-care-housed parents. The parts that got to me are the ones in bold. I don’t know if they’re true: but they sure as hell seem plausible to me — and unlike the others they’re something that we can do something about.
If David Nixon is right — and I know that he has every professional reason to exaggerate the impact of such people so long as he doesn’t lie — then a lot of people were taking advantage of California’s “Ado Annie,” knowing that she “cain’t say no.”
I don’t know who those people were. (I don’t know if I want to know; I prefer being able to make eye contact with people without cringing.) I hope and expect that none of the people on that list in the second paragraph were among them — after all, they each lost money — but if Nixon isn’t inflating the story, then a lot of people must have been out there taking advantage of her apparent generosity — and abusing it.
[Disclaimer: I was involved in only one decision, back in January 2011, to renew a contract with Durkee & Associates — but from discussions at that time and in previous electoral cycles I can attest that the general (though not universal — I’m told that Steve Young always smelled a rat) view of Durkee is that given her low rates and apparent competence one would have to be actively crazy and possibly abusive of the candidate of organization one served to hire anyone other than Durkee as political treasurer.]
That’s heady stuff. And, to keep that reputation, I can understand why one might give out freebies and not collect on bills owed by people who could have paid, but didn’t. That doesn’t excuse descent into criminality — but it points to some of the least savory aspects of politics: the exchange of reflected glory for personal privilege. It happens with money, it happens with sex, and it happens, as here, with free services and forgiven — even if sometimes grudgingly forgiven — debts.
Effective electoral politics is, among other things, about being willing and able to use other people. In other words, being able to ask them for money that they may or may not be able to afford, ask them for volunteered tasks that they may or may not have time to do, and in some cases use all of that to benefit oneself and high-paid consultants who can influence gossip from Sacramento to Santa Ana and also may or may not be able to give value for their money.
I’ve been on the “giving services” side of that fence for many years — in the Obama campaign in 2008 and the Brown campaign in 2010, for example. One is supposed to earn what Brown, back in the early 80s, called “psychic dollars” for doing good and valuable work (back when he was trying to get teachers to do extra work without raises in non-psychic dollars.) There’s something to that. For many of us — especially if, as with the Brown campaign, we perceive that no one else is getting rich in the process either — having helped foster political change is one of the highlights of our year, or even of our life. But as with other situations where one has access to what sometimes jokingly gets called “slave labor” — children who want permission, college students who want a recommendation, suitors who want a kiss — it can mess with the person who wants to take.
We in politics actually go to trainings where we are told that we have to reconcile ourselves to taking from people — to ask for money without shame, even from strangers and acquaintances or friends we haven’t seen or spoken with in years. We’re told how not to take no for an answer when we ask people to take on a volunteer responsibility. Such volunteering is, by and large and after all, “for their own good” and for the greater good of society. So we’re trained to overcome our compunctions to do it. (I mostly failed to overcome those compunctions as a candidate this year, partly because I was running more as a protest candidate pushing Occupy than as someone who expected to have a serious chance of winning without my opponent falling into a scandal. Being a taker is hard for most people than it might seem.)
Kinde Durkee herself, somewhat ironically, appears to have been a “giver” more than a “taker.” Think of it — she was Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s campaign Treasurer! You can pretty much trace her appeal downwards from La Feinstein’s endorsement — to Loretta Sanchez and the LA County Party, to Correa and Solorio, to DPOC and Sukhee Kang and the Young Dems. She could have — should have — raised her fees. She could have refused — should have refused — to give out freebies to these unidentified sources and to let clients float without paying her the fees she needed to keep her office afloat. But, if her attorney’s word is to be credited, she couldn’t — or at least didn’t.
Was it the continued opportunity to brush with the powerful and famous? Was it her commitment to helping out causes that she believed in — or to be perceived as doing so? Was she afraid of confrontation — or was she just a cold-hearted embezzler from the start, despite what her attorney said about her?
I can’t rule out the last of these — and I can’t rule out the first — but I can’t rule out the middle one either. It seems possible that Durkee was, at base, simply a soft touch — and that the finely honed instincts of some politicians picked up on that and took advantage of it.
People see the lesson of the Durkee scandal as one that places all of the responsibility and blame onto her: don’t be an embezzler. Well, yeah, I can get behind that sentiment — but there’s another lesson that can apply to even those of us who aren’t prone to embezzlement to consider. That is: hang onto your compunctions. Don’t press for so much from people that the only way that they can possibly deliver on their commitments is illegally.
I’ve had interesting discussions with my fellow denizens of the Left in recent years about the intersection of personal responsibility and international human rights, largely in the context of buying merchandise from Asia and Latin America, through places like Walmart. Some of that merchandise, we might reasonably expect, is as cheap as it is because of foul and criminal labor and environmental practices. The question is at what point one becomes morally culpable in those practices simply because one is looking for the best deal. The general sense seems to be that if the price of something gets low enough, then one has to be held responsible for the knowledge that one is contributing to that criminality.
Were Kinde Durkee’s prices so low as to charge those who contracted with her with the equivalent of knowingly receiving stolen goods. For most of us, I don’t think it was. I believe that most of those in OC, me included, seemed to think that she really was able to provide inexpensive services due to her low overhead. She was a good example, it seemed, of how avoiding fripperies and living a modest life allowed one to provide a service at what should have been its appropriate value. We wanted to believe it, too — it went along with the notion of rejection of ostentatious display that one does see from time to time in the tonier sections of Orange County. We thought — I think — that she had just really come up with a better way to deliver the same product at a lower expense and a lower margin.
Put in shopping terms: she was, in our view, a Costco rather than a Cosa Nostra. We didn’t think that we were buying something that had “fallen off of a truck.”
We were wrong. Apparently, you can’t charge that little for what Durkee & Associates were selling and provide those same services honestly. Sometimes “too good to be true” really is too good to be true. Judge me harshly for my credulity if you must; I’m in plenty of good company.
For some among us, though, I am less forgiving. If David Nixon’s words can be credited, then some people around knew that she was a soft touch and were taking advantage of it. Such people should have known that other people would presumably be doing the same thing — and that Durkee, like Bernie Madoff, could not possibly have a legitimate business model. Such people, at least arguably, contributed to her downfall (and its consequences.)
I don’t blame Kinde Durkee any less for what she did because of those people. But if those people do exist, to the level of having made a difference in spurring her to criminality, then I do blame them as well. We don’t just blame the Ado Annie’s of the world who cain’t say no when they end up “in a terrible fix,” We also blame, or at least we should also blame, the people who took advantage of them. If, of course, they do exist.