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Today's conviction of former White House aide David Safavian, on charges that he lied and obstructed justice in the investigation of his dealings with disgraced former super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, is a breath of fresh air. (See today's headlines, below.) While a number of players in the wide-ranging corruption probe, including Abramoff himself, pled guilty to charges, today's conviction follows the first trial coming out of the Abramoff scandal.
Every once in a while, justice is served.
The larger and more important question, though, is who will follow? Safavian was found guilty on one count for lying about the infamous Abramoff-organized trip to St. Andrew's golf course in Scotland in 2002. Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) was on that trip, and Ney's former chief of staff Neil Volz (who has pled guilty), testifed against Safavian. Will Ney be the next one indicted? What about other inductees in our Hall of Shame, many of them under scrutiny for their ties to Abramoff? Given that Safavian was the top White House procurement officer, will his conviction once again raise the question of Bush's ties to Abramoff?
The even larger question, of course, is whether additional convictions of current lawmakers will bring about changes in the way Congress does business, including better ethics rules and lobbying reform than the toothless jokes Congress offered up this spring. And if not, will that failure then lead to a reaction by the electorate in November...and a new crop of legislators more interested in doing the people's business rather than the business of their campaign contributors and lobbyists?
We are delighted to announce that the forces of fiscal sanity and fairness won a very important battle in the U.S. Senate today, as those trying to force a vote on full repeal of the estate tax failed to get enough support to end a threatened filibuster. The repeal attempt is, for the moment, dead.
We would like to thank every one of the Clean Up Washington activists and Corruption Watchdogs who made this victory possible.
The battle for estate tax repeal at its core represented the very essence of corruption in our nation’s capitol: special interests using large sums of money – through political contributions, intensive lobbying, and deceptive PR campaigns – to force through legislation to enrich themselves, rather than help the American people. A Public Citizen report proved that a small number of super-wealthy families (the Waltons, Mars and Gallos among them) were behind the repeal campaign. The report received nationwide news coverage and shaped the public debate by pointing out the self-interest of the ultra-rich families backing estate tax repeal.
While those families would have popped fancy champagne corks if the repeal had passed, the remaining 99.7 percent of us would have suffered mightily. Full repeal would have cost the U.S. Treasury up to $1 trillion ($1,000,000,000,000) during the first ten years, a shortfall that would have resulted in cuts in vital services or higher taxes for everyone.
Unsurprisingly, too many senators chose to serve the interests of the wealthy elite, continuing to live in a fantasy land where debts never have to be repaid. Fortunately, enough of them – bolstered by your phone calls and emails – chose to do the right thing.
The Republican leadership may try to bring up a “compromise” bill, and you can be sure that we will be there to meet them if they try. In the meantime, please accept our thanks once again for this important victory, and have a sip of champagne yourself – the cheap stuff, of course!
Read here for the statement by Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook
Click here to tell your senators that you support this vote for fairness and fiscal sanity.
Today’s Roll Call (subscription only) published its last interview with Tom DeLay, at least as Representative from
“I’m very proud of my career. I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish here. I’m proud that in our 12 years in the majority we’ve been able to advance conservative causes on very slim margins. I’m proud of the fact that we built one of the largest political coalitions in this town. I’m proud of the
According the article, he is supposed to give a 20 minute farewell speech from the floor of the House tomorrow. We can hardly wait to hear how he chooses to congratulate himself, again.
While on tour last year, popular HBO comedian Bill Mahrer remarked on the revelations of lavish congressional junkets emerging at the time, many of them connected to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Mahrer noted that if someone took him to
Just how many legislative favors, I have to wonder, did members of Congress do in return for the 23,000 trips that were given to them by corporations and other private interests between January 2000 and June 2005 - trips worth nearly $50 million, and which included corporate jet rides, $500-a-night hotels, and exotic destinations including Paris, Hawaii, Italy, and, of course, that golf course in Scotland?
These numbers were discussed in The Washington Post's coverage of the new Center for Public Integrity study on Congressional travel (see Corruption News Roundup, below). House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) promised in the wake of Abramoff's guilty plea to ban such privately funded travel, but those promises turned to dust, and Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) won election as House majority leader on the specific promise not to ban such travel. (Not surprisingly, his office was one of the biggest recipients of the privately-funded trips.)
Kevin Madden, Boehner's spokesperson, was quoted in the article as saying that such travel "’leads to greater understanding of the issues' at no cost to taxpayers." While an objective observer might reasonably ask how discussing Social Security at a Colorado ski resort leads to "greater understanding" than discussing it in a Washington office, the assertion that these junkets come at "no cost to taxpayers" is just flat-out wrong.
It is wrong because these freebies that members of Congress, their families and staff receive from corporate America are part of a system of legalized bribery, a system that persuades members to approve multi-billion dollar subsidies for the corporations that pay for the trips, or to pass monstrous corporate giveaways such as the $500 billion-plus Medicare prescription drug bill – all of which cost the taxpayers dearly.
No reform of Congress will be complete until such trips are banned or severely restricted.
In the meantime, though, I certainly understand the desire to go to
As controversy continues to swirl around the embattled Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), whose office was searched by the FBI in connection to an alleged bribery scandal, today’s Washington Post investigates the allegations concerning a "corporate labyrinth" which secretly received payments from high-tech ventures in African countries. Many of the payments appear to have been redirected to Jefferson's wife and five daughters. As noted in the Post, federal investigation of Jefferson's business negotiations have already yielded guilty pleas from one business partner and a former top aide. Both confessed to involvement in a bribery scheme. Jefferson continues to deny any wrongdoing.
The AP reports that David Safavian, a former Bush aide on trial for lying to investigators about his relationship with disgraced former super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, took the stand again today under continued cross-examination by federal prosecuters. Safavian, a chief of staff for the General Services Administration and later chief procurement officer for the White House, is denying that he concealed ties to Abramoff and suggesting he was "mistaken about the time frame" of advice given to Abramoff, stating that it the conversation happened a few weeks before he attended a luxury-filled golf trip to Scotland arranged by Abramoff in August of 2002, and not after, as he had originally testified.
Ethics issues will be a central focus for voters in a Republican primary tomorrow which pits Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) against former Rep. Paul "Pete" McClosky (R-Calif.). Pombo, a 14-year incumbent, has come under intense scrutiny for his ties to Abramoff. As chairman of the House Resources Committee, which oversees both Indian gaming issues and U.S. territories, Pombo was courted by Abramoff's biggest clients: casino-rich Indian tribes and officials of the Northern Mariana Islands eager to fend off U.S. labor laws.
The Washington Post reports that Abramoff personally gave $7,500 to Pombo's campaign and political action committee while seven of his lobbying associates gave another $7,000. Additionally, the tribal clients and Northern Mariana interests pitched in $29,250. The San Francisco Chronicle writes about Pombo’s struggles with environmentalists, an issue highlighted by the fact that his primary opponent, McCloskey, authored the 1973 Endangered Species Act.
The San Jose Mercury News reports on the federal investigation into House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), and his relationship with a former Congressman-turned-lobbyist whose firm’s clients include Lewis’s home town and home county. Both Riverside County and the Cal State Bernardino Foundation were required to hand over records of contacts between Lewis and the lobbying firm that now employs former Rep. Bill Lowery (R-Calif.). The Washington Post reports that San Bernardino County paid Lowery's firm $60,000 last year for representation on appropriations and budget bills - further illustrating the "revolving door" problem that occurs when former public servants seek to exploit privileged relationships with politicians.
Paul Krugman writes in the New York Times about the upcoming Senate vote to repeal the estate tax. After postponing the original vote last fall because of Hurricane Katrina, the Republican leadership will once again attempt to increase the wealth of those who will already inherit millions even as they cut health care to "balance the budget." While this time they won’t be debating the issue with impoverished Americans clinging to their rooftops while floodwaters rise around them, the measure remains an unconscionable give-away to America's wealthiest families.
As the trial of former White House aide David Safavian continues this week, the defense attempts to steer attention towards the irrelevant details of a recreational golf trip Safavian took, and away from allegations he lied to investigators about favors recieved from Jack Abramoff while helping the now-notorious lobbyist gain influence. The Washington Post reports on the latest developments in the Safavian trial, while the New York Times writes about Neil Volz, a convicted former aide to Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio). In testimony, Volz admitted to preparing a travel disclosure statement that intentionally understated the cost of a lavish 2002 golfing trip to Scotland.
As reported in the LA Times, a spokesman for Senate Minority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced today that the Senator misstated ethics rules when recently defending his acceptance of free boxing tickets given to him in 2004 and 2005 by the Nevada Athletic Commission, a group involved in trying to influence Reid's legislation to create a federal boxing commission.
Bloomberg News reports on a recent study by the Center for Public Integrity, which demonstrates how the House Appropriations Committee has become a "revolving door" for both former Congressmen and aides turned lobbyists who can exploit relationships they have developed with lawmakers.
House Judiciary Chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) held an unusual recess hearing in order to further complain about the FBI's search of Rep. William Jefferson's (D-LA) office. In the article, "Sensenbrenner's Jefferson Windbag Hearing," Louisiana reporter Jeff Crouere, who lives in Jefferson's district, identifies yesterday's hearing as the epitome of "inside the beltway" politics.
In "The Lobby is Getting Crowded," New York Newsday has taken a closer look into the explosive growth of federal lobbying - and found many of the culprits in their own backyard.
It turns out that New York has the highest number of former members of Congress turned lobbyists of any state in the nation - 25 ex-House members and one former senator. Overall, the number of registered federal lobbyists has tripled in the past ten years, from 10,798 in 1996 to the current 32,890 who filed last September. (Federal lobbying expenditures jumped 50 percent in just five years, from $1.4 billion in 1999 to $2.1 billion in 2004.)
Most of these ex-members have managed to rack up millions of dollars in fees since making the switch, leading one of them, former Republican Rep. Ray McGrath, to concede that "a 'revolving door' may exist, with lawmakers leaving Congress who lobby for industries that they once regulated...." Gee, you think?
The article goes on to note that "the heftiest payments often come from large corporations and trade associations...[representing]... industries such as energy, health care, oil, banking and telecommunications, which often want changes in federal law, tax code and agency regulations that affect their profits." And these corporations and trade associations know how to recruit.
For instance, former Republican Rep. Bill Carney, who unsuccessfully fought to keep Long Island's unpopular Shoreham nuclear power plant open while in Congress, noted that "I would have enjoyed defense work [as a lobbyist]... but having gone through the Shoreham battle, several [energy] companies offered me an opportunity to work for them." How convenient.
McGrath's lobbying partner, former Democratic Rep. Tom Downey, describes the dynamic a little more directly: "We represent a number of New York firms because we did their business while in the House."
And all this time we thought they were elected to Congress to do the people's business....
The May 20 FBI raid on the congressional offices of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) continues to rankle in Congress, as Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) holds a hearing today in the House Judiciary Committee provocatively entitled "Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?"
There are signs, however, that congressional outrage is beginning to cool. Senate Majority Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) joined Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in declining to criticize the FBI, saying that he does not believe that Constitutional separation of powers principles were violated by the raid. And Roll Call reports today that House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), among the most vocal critics of the raid, is beginning to hear grumbling from some GOP members that the high-profile fight over the raid can only lead voters to believe that Congress is trying to protect itself from scrutiny. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.) issued a statement Friday morning saying, “I am extremely disappointed that some in this body — including the Speaker and the Minority Leader — feel that somehow our actions are sacrosanct and above public scrutiny.”
For his part, the incensed Rep. Sensenbrenner is holding his hearing on the matter during the Senate's Memorial Day recess - when Washington traditionally becomes a virtual ghost town.
The AP is reporting that Senate Minority Leader Reid took free ringside boxing tickets from Nevada officials who were trying to influence his federal legislation regulating the sport. Reid says that he was simply trying to learn how his legislation might affect an important home state industry; ethics experts claim, not surprisingly, that he would have been better off paying for the tickets, which cost several hundred to several thousand dollars.
The L.A. Times notes that corruption in Congress and Bush's low standing in the polls have turned California's normally "ruby red" 50th district into a toss up, and that the special election this coming Tuesday to replace convicted former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) is being viewed as a bellweather for national elections in the fall.
The Washington Post's Jeffrey Birnbaum reports on how the recent wave of corruption has failed to move any real reform in a lackadaisical Congress, which may not even get around to finalizing ethics reform legislation this year.
The Wisconsin Sheboygan Press says that the FBI was not on a fishing expedition with the raid on Jefferson's office, which, it says, shows that at least one part of government is willing to go after wrongdoers in Congress.
The Des Moines Register compares the recent vocal outrage over the FBI raid to congressional quiesence on the issues of NSA wiretapping and the collection of telephone records - "If only Congress were so fiercely committed to the constitutional rights of regular American citizens as their own."
Florida's Herald Tribune believes that after 16 months of "dormancy and dereliction of duty," the House ethics committee needs to expand its inquiries to include other members of Congress (in addition to Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), Jefferson and Cunningham) - most notably Florida's own Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.).
It seems that the FBI's weekend raid of Rep. William Jefferson's (D-La.) congressional office has done what months and months of scandal could not: it has caused the leadership of the House to respond in a bi-partisan fashion.
Regrettably, the joint letter from House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was not a clarion call for members of Congress to clean up their act, nor was it a joint admission that the recently passed "reform" legislation doesn't even begin to go far enough. Instead, it was a demand that the FBI immediately return all the files seized from Jefferson's office. (See Corruption Headlines, below.)
This is not to say that there aren't legitimate separation-of-powers questions here. But the raid would likely never have happened were it not for the rampant corruption which exists in Congress today, and the complicity of Congressional leadership, as they turn a blind eye with a nonexistent ethics process amid spreading allegations of wrongdoing.
ABC News has reported that Hastert is "in the mix" of the corruption probe, and certainly former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and his staff were at the center of the Abramoff scandal. And the House ethics committee just got around to announcing an investigation of Jeffersion this month, even though he's been under a dark cloud of suspicion for more than year - the $90,000 stash in his freezer was discovered in a raid of his home last August.
It is also interesting to note that this Congress seems all too willing to allow the Bush administration's questionable infringements on Americans' civil rights, from the Patriot Act through the NSA wiretapping, yet when one of their own has his office raided, then stop the presses, it's suddenly time to stand up for privacy rights. As Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) noted, the electorate "will come to one conclusion: that congressional leaders are trying to protect their own from valid investigations."
If members of Congress don't want the FBI cleaning out their offices, maybe they should consider cleaning house themselves. Or will this be a task left for voters in November?
There are new signs that Democratic leadership and congressional candidates are standing firm on their pledge of an ethical house cleaning in Congress - even among members of their own party.
Following the FBI raid on his congressional offices over the weekend, CNN is now reporting that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has called for Rep. Jefferson (D-La.) to immediately resign from his position on the House Ways and Means Committee, "in the interest of upholding the high ethical standard of the House Democratic Caucus." Rep. Jefferson is being investigated in relation to an alleged bribery scheme. Liberal bloggers such as Daily Kos are also calling for the Democratic leadership to "dump Jefferson," and Francis Busby, who is running for the California seat vacated by convicted former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunnigham, has called for Jefferson's resignation. Jefferson continues to maintain his innocence, quickly declining Pelosi's call to resign.
Meanwhile, MSNBC is reporting that in an interview with NBC News, Pelosi claimed that lobbying and ethics reform would be at the absolute top of the Democratic agenda should they retake the House in the fall elections, with rule changes coming on the very first day of a Democratic majority. "No meals, no gifts," and no flights for members on corporate jets, she asserted.
The New York Times reports on the continuing controversy over the FBI's weekend raid of Jefferson's office. Even Republican lawmakers - who are likely fearful of further raids related to the Jack Abramoff bribery investigation - are strongly rebutting the Bush administration's assertion of broad executive powers in this case, suggesting that the raid calls into question fundamental separation-of-powers principles and might lead to a showdown in the Supreme Court.
In the meantime, the Washington Post describes Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' defense of the raid, which he says was "conducted carefully to avoid trampling on the constitutional privileges" of Congress. The White House is reportedly trying to find a way to placate Congress. (As reported in the Times article mentioned above, Gonzales felt compelled to acknowledge that the FBI has "a great deal of respect for the Congress as a co-equal branch of government.")
The Los Angeles Times takes a closer look at the FBI's attempts to get needed documents through the subpoena process months before the raid, and reports on additional concerns in the Senate, where Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), has ordered the staff of the Rules Committee, which he chairs, to study the search.
At the start of the trial of David Safavian, former top procurement official in the Bush administration, the AP reports that federal prosecutors will claim that Safavian "abandoned his duty to the public in order to serve lobbyist Jack Abramoff... and concealed his conduct from investigators"