Public officials who resort to extortion betray a poverty of imagination, because there are so many legitimate ways for them to enrich themselves. Nevertheless, we are frequently reminded that some politicians’ lust for personal enrichment is matched only by their reckless disregard of the criminal statutes.

Take the case of Jack B. Johnson, the former Prince Georges county executive. Politics as usual for him included lush development contracts worth millions of dollars for local business leaders, who in turn were dunned for hundreds of thousands of dollars to local charities. Not surprisingly, the charities (including the Boys and Girls Clubs of Laurel, Md., among others) never received the money.

Instead, Jack Johnson took a huge share of the money, admitting to $400,000 in bribes last month as part of his guilty plea to two felony charges. (The FBI had been wiretapping him as part of an investigation into corruption in Prince Georges.)

In his first four years in office, Johnson awarded more than 50 no-bid contracts to 15 of his friends and political backers, and created a dozen high profile positions that he filled with supporters and former fraternity brothers, many of whom had little or no experience.

Is this politics as usual? How many contracts are no-bid? A substantial number, on city, county, state and federal levels. Grateful recipients invariably support the public official that sent the contracts their way. In the old days it used to be only jobs; now it’s also no-bid contracts.

The soaring power of government has led to new avenues of political enrichment, and exacerbated some traditional strategies. “How can we go through the (onerous) contracting process when a war is going on,” asked a DOD official? “We need the tanks and food now; not six months from now.”

Halliburton, Blackwater and other Iraq contractors billed the government for services not performed and supplies not delivered. All had deep political ties to the GOP. Blackwater CEO, Eric Prince, was long active in the Republican Party – his sister headed the Michigan Republic Party – and was involved with the reelection of former President George W. Bush.

Under considerable pressure from a congressional investigation as well as an extensive inquiry into the killing of 17 Iraqi citizens, Blackwater reconstituted itself as Xe Services. Blackwater represented the privatization of foreign policy, with responsibilities that included protecting assets and providing security for State Department employees. A rose by another name, Xe Services recently won a $100 million contract from the Central Intelligence Agency.

Is this patronage? Sure. But it also represents a new trend in American politics: the privatization of foreign policy.

But patronage abuses are bipartisan. Jim Johnson, long a Democratic operative, ended up with $100 million in salary and benefits during his seven years as CEO of Fannie Mae. Under his leadership, Fannie Mae became a lobbying juggernaut that successfully warded off all efforts at regulation.

Even more alarming is the increasing politicization of judicial campaigns. (The United States is the only industrialized country to have judicial elections, which it does in about half of its 50 states.) A report by the state of West Virginia found the Massey Energy Company “profoundly reckless” in its handling of the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 workers. Massey found it more profitable to litigate than to comply with mine safety regulations.

Alas, the judge involved in an earlier appeal was the beneficiary of a $3 million campaign contribution from an official of the Massey organization! Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the judge who had accepted the campaign contribution should have recused himself from a case involving Massey, but the practice still persists. Judges are selected by political parties, many receive campaign contributions, and to no one’s surprise, often make decidedly political decisions.

Patronage still prevails as part of the American system of politics: in contracts, judicial selection, and it still plays a large part in the quality of our public officials.

When it is exaggerated – as it was in the cases of Blackwater, Massey Energy, and Jack and Jim Johnson – it is up to the media, and to other investigating arms of government to rein it in. Does that always happen? Probably not. But recent cases, public attention, and higher standards offer more hope.