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During my four-month stint as a member of the Clean Up Washington team, there has been no shortage of ethics and lobbying scandals dominating the political scene.
Things frequently border on the ridiculous, such as Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s bribe menu or Rep. William Jefferson’s (D-La.) cash in the freezer. From an outside activist point of view, it’s often hard to imagine how these things happen. Well, last Friday I got a look at how easy it is.
A friend of mine invited me to an annual dinner reception for Washington State residents who now live in the District. The event was packed with nearly 800 Capitol Hill staffers, activists and, yes, some lobbyists too. The $49 ticket price didn’t raise my suspicion until a Senate staffer told me a lobbyist had purchased her ticket. A $49 ticket…sounds like a good way to avoid the $50 gift limit for members of Congress and staff.
As the night wore on, someone mentioned that the dinner was known for its generous raffle prizes. I paid my dollar to enter and waited to hear ticket number 1401. The raffle was large and well funded, with almost 80 prizes all worth more than $100. Finally, prize 71 came up, and I won!
Inside the prize envelope, I found a card with the logo of Denny Miller Associates on the front and this message inside:
“Please enjoy compliments of Denny Miller Associates a Nordstroms gift certificate.”
Even in my great enthusiasm something didn’t seem right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. It was a few minutes later before it clicked: I had just accepted a gift from a lobbyist.
Making matters worse, this wasn’t just any lobbyist, but the lobbyist who gave the fourth most money to members of Congress over the last eight years as detailed in the most recent Public Citizen report on lobbying. I had spent nearly a day researching Denny Miller and his monetary ties to Congress for this report, and here I was taking his money myself.
What struck me most was lobbyists’ ingenuity for finding new ways to use money to buy influence. While it is illegal for Denny Miller Associates to give a congressional staffer gifts valued at more than $50, it’s just fine to donate more expensive gifts (with the company name and logo prominently displayed, of course) to a raffle attended by the same staffer.
I have come to realize that money will always find a way to wield influence in Washington. But we can control it with reform measures – ones much stronger than the toothless laws passed this spring, of course – with the ultimate reform being public financing of campaigns. Continued good luck to our Corruption Watchdogs in hammering these issues home in the coming months leading up to the midterm elections!
The Associated Press reports Vice President Dick Cheney yesterday spoke at a private lunch for Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) followed by a $200,000 fund raising dinner for Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.). The two incumbent Republicans face surprisingly strong primary and general election challenges because of their ties to superlobbyist Jack Abramoff. Nothing like bringing in an ethically challenged Vice President to help out ethically vacuous congressmen.
The fallout from the raid on Rep. William Jefferson’s (D-La.) congressional office continues to spread. While the LA Times described the “old-style simplicity” of the scandal, the Associated Press reported that a bipartisan group of influential lawmakers condemned the search because of concerns about the separation of powers.
The Washington Post says the ethics panel stirs, but will it take on the hard cases?
The Tennessean says now ethics scandals don’t just involve Democrats.
The ethical questions surrounding Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) reached a fever pitch over the weekend as FBI agents raided his congressional office. CNN reported that the search, which lasted nearly 18 hours, marked the first time the FBI has ever investigated a lawmaker’s Capitol Hill office.
The search coincided with the release of court papers stating agents found $90,000 in cash in
The office raid comes on the heels of iGate CEO Vernon L. Jackson and staff aide Brett M. Pfeffer’s pleading guilty to charges of bribing the congressman.
Like every American, Rep. Jefferson deserves the presumption of innocence until proven guilty in court. However, the dark cloud hanging over the congressman makes it impossible for him to fairly represent his constituents – and given that he represents
On April 27, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) took to the House floor to decry the weak lobbying reform bill, declaring the American people “expect and deserve better.” She promised if Democrats retook control of the House, they would pass stronger reforms and end the “culture of corruption in this House of Representatives.”
The growing scandal around Rep. Jefferson provides Ms. Pelosi with a unique opportunity to demonstrate the sincerity of her call for ethics reform. If Democrats are serious about cleaning up
It’s easy to criticize your opponents when they go astray. It takes true leadership to acknowledge mistakes within your own party and work to correct them. If Minority Leader Pelosi wants to be Majority Leader or House Speaker Pelosi she needs to show that she can hold her party to the same ethical standards she demands of others by calling for William Jefferson to step aside at this time.
Federal agents over the weekend investigated the congressional office of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.). The search, which lasted for nearly 18 hours, marked the first time the FBI has ever investigated a lawmaker’s Capitol Hill office.
Bloomberg reports the search coincided with the release of court papers stating agents found $90,000 cash in the Representative’s freezer last August. The cash is allegedly part of a $100,000 payment the FBI caught on video, showing Jefferson personally taking the payment in $100 bills.
In an interview with The St. Petersburg Times, Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.) sought to put down reports of her $2800 dinner with defense contractor Mitchell Wade (the same Mitchell Wade who pled guilty to bribing former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham). When asked about the dinner, Harris responded in what is sure to become a classic line "Do I look like I ate $2,800 in one sitting?" We'll leave that for you to decide...
Prosecutors have filed a brief with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to reinstate charges against indicted Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and two associates for conspiring to violate state election laws. The Houston Chronicle reports a Travis County grand jury indicted DeLay and political consultants John Colyandro and Jim Ellis last year on money laundering and conspiracy charges, but a district judge later threw out the conspiracy indictment.
The CBS news affiliate in California writes Vice President Dick Cheney is in California today to raise money for Hall of Shame members Reps. John Doolittle (R-Calif) and Richard Pombo (R-Calif), another example of this adminstration's ethical obtuseness we blogged on last week. The Republican incumbents face stronger than expected challengers in the primary and general elections due to their recent ethical missteps.
The San Antonio Express-News says the House ethics committee can go back to sleep. Unless “an independent office exists to investigate and punish ethics violators, there will be no meaningful ethics process in Congress.”
The congressional bribery probe may deepen as prosecutors learn more about the dealings of disgraced defense contractor Mitchell Wade. According to the Boston Globe, court documents show that after Wade had bought off former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.), he turned his unscrupulous sights to Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.), as well as Rep. Virgil Goode Jr. (R-Va.), a relative newcomer to the world of ethical improprieties. Wade reportedly gave his employees $2,000 reimbursements in exchange for campaign contributions, adding up to $32,000 for Harris and $46,000 for Goode. After FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said in a speech last week that congressional corruption cases are a top bureau priority, we can only expect more of these types of revelations in the future.
MSNBC reports President Bush and Vice President Cheney will travel to several “ethical hotspots” in the coming days. In an attempt to boost Republicans facing re-election challenges because of ethics questions, Bush and Cheney will visit the districts of three Hall of Shame members as well as Kentucky, which saw the indictment of GOP Gov. Ernie Fletcher last week.
In addition to the ethics committee investigation into the broader Cunningham scandal, the House Homeland Security Committee is also looking into the limousine company involved in the imprisoned representative’s downfall. According to the Washington Times, lawmakers are investigating procurement and security concerns about the contract with Shirlington Limousine, which allegedly took prostitutes and members to lavish parties thrown by defense contractors.
The Wall Street Journal reports the first lobbying scandal will face a jury on Monday as the case against David Safavian, a longtime associate of disgraced superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, as well as the former chief procurement officer for the Bush administration in the Office of Management and Budget, goes to a full trial. With many guilty pleas coming in, prosecutors are trying to keep the heat on those at the center of the scandal.
As mentioned in the headlines below, the House ethics committee has opened three different investigations - after nearly 16 months of inactivity. Most notably, this marks the first time in a year and a half the committee has acknowledged the flurry of ethics scandals which have overrun the Capitol.
The Clean Up Washington campaign has been critical of the moribund ethics committee for some time now. Just to be sure I was giving the ethics committee a fair chance before writing this blog, I went to their website to read up on their work investigating the Jack Abramoff scandal. Even without having launched any formal investigations, surely the ethics committee would have looked into the largest congressional scandal in years, one that involves multiple members and staff and millions of dollars. So what does the House ethics committee website have to say about the scandal?
“0 documents match your search Jack Abramoff”
I don’t want to minimize the importance of the ethics committee opening investigations into corruption allegations against Reps. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and William Jefferson (D-La.), as well as the ever-widening bribery investigation around the now-imprisoned Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.). This is an important first step, even if it should have been taken long, long ago. It’s just difficult to have much confidence in a committee that worked so hard to resist even holding a meeting. Without profound changes to the congressional ethics process it seems unlikely the just-announced investigations will result in anything more serious than “letters of admonition,” such as the ones sent to then House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) in 2004. Sadly, even those letters proved too harsh a punishment for a member of the House, as Republican leaders responded by relieving the committee chairman of his duties and stocking the committee with party loyalists.
It has become abundantly clear that politicians cannot police politicians. How many more members and their staff must be indicted or plead guilty before Congress enacts real reform? The plethora of congressional scandals shows once again the need for an Office of Public Integrity, at an absolute minimum, to establish independent enforcement and restore public credibility to the ethics enforcement process. If Congress doesn’t start making real changes now it looks more and more like voters will in November.
Believe it or not, The New York Times reports the House ethics committee has opened two investigations into members’ ties to superlobbyist Jack Abramoff! Nearly a year and a half after allegations became public, this is the first congressional probe into the Abramoff scandal.
The committee will investigate the dealings of Hall of Shame members Reps. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and William Jefferson (D-La.). In addition, the committee opened an investigation into the bribery scandal surrounding former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), who is currently serving eight years in jail, to determine if other members or staff acted improperly. In an ironic note, the committee statement also said the committee would have opened an investigation into indicted Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), but - luckily for them - he resigned first. Oh well, it's the thought that counts. ...
The Hill reports that Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) sent six staff members to California to campaign for his son, who was running for the state Assembly. (Federal law prohibits members of Congress from having staff members work on election campaigns while employed as staff.)
The Los Angeles Times reports new details about the raid on the home of former CIA official and Duke Cunningham associate Kyle “Dusty” Foggo last Friday. Foggo's lawyer said investigators were looking for evidence about trips his client took with the family of San Diego defense contractor Brent Wilkes and whether Foggo paid his share. Wilkes is "co-conspirator #1" in the Cunningham bribery investigation and is currently cooperating with the federal investigators.
After returning a $2,500 campaign contribution indirectly linked to Abramoff, The Miami Herald reports Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) now refuses to return $250,000 from a fund-raiser co-chaired and attended by the superlobbyist.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution says members of Congress seem to lose their sense of judgment somewhere between home districts and Washington.
Rick Cohen writes in The Hill that the Republican Study Committee has opposed bipartisan efforts to increase regulations of charities and foundations like those abused by Abramoff, DeLay and Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.).
According to the Times-Picayune, prosecutors have tape-recorded conversations between Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) and the Lori Moody, head of a technology company the Congressman had dealings with. Reports allege Jefferson accepted thousands of dollars in bribes and then pressured investors to back up the projects.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reports former defense contractor Mitchell Wade is cooperating with federal prosecutors and has so much to tell that his court date has been pushed back.
Some groups are beginning to raise questions about a $600,000 severance package for a lobbyist who left to be a top aide to House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.). The San Bernardino County Sun reports this size of the going-away-gift is surprising, even in the lucrative lobbying profession, for someone about to assume an important appropriations position.
Despite widespread calls for ethics and earmark reform, the Associated Press says members of the House are adding just as many earmarks as ever
The Toledo Blade says don’t call this reform.
Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) yesterday defiantly declared himself innocent of charges he accepted bribes for federal contracts. The Times-Picayune reports this announcement came only weeks after iGate's CEO, Vernon Jackson, admitted paying more than $400,000 in bribes to a bogus company controlled by Jefferson's wife and family in exchange for official favors.
Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) faced strong criticism from his Republican primary opponent in their first debate yesterday. The Contra Costa Times reports Pombo’s opponent, former Congressman Pete McCloskey (R-Calif.) hammered the current Representative on ethics, saying he should return all his donations from superlobbyist Jack Abramoff and pointing out that several of Pombo's staffers have pled guilty to corruption charges.
The Los Angeles Times reports Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) used his earmarking power to increase the value of land he owns in his district. Without doing any improvements to their 4-acre property, Calvert and his partner sold the plot for a $400,000 profit less than a year later.
The Washington Post writes Rep. Jefferson should resign from Congress because of the ethics questions surrounding him.
The Los Angeles Times says the lobby reform efforts in Washington are falling short. The White House release of the Abramoff visitor records only added to Congress' failure to do something about the "corrupting coziness between legislators and lobbyists that Abramoff came to symbolize."
The Cleveland Plain-Dealer simply asks: “this is reform?"
Appropriations Chairman Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) yesterday angrily denied any misconduct relating to earmarks from his committee. Despite the denial, the The Washington Post reports investigators are looking into Lewis' dealings with lobbyist and former Republican Rep. Bill Lowery of San Diego. A federal government source said subpoenas have been issued in the spin-off from the corruption probe of now-imprisoned former Rep. Duke Cunningham.
Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R-Kent.) was indicted yesterday on charges that he illegally rewarded political supporters with state jobs - the first sitting governor in Kentucky history to be so charged. According to The New York Times , Gov. Fletcher is charged with three misdemeanors - criminal conspiracy, official misconduct and violating the prohibition against political discrimination.
The Houston Chronicle reports indicted Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) will resign from Congress on June 9. (Suggestions for names of a national holiday in his honor are welcome!)
Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) won a court order to delay the release of possibly embarrassing search warrants in the federal bribery investigation. The Times-Picayune reports this follows the guilty plea last week of iGate CEO Vernon Jackson of charges he steered millions of dollars in stock and cash to the Congressman’s family.
The House ethics committee rises again! In response to abuse of privately financed travel by members of Congress, The Associated Press reports the ethics committee is offering to pre-approve trip itineraries for members.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the U.S. Attorney’s office is expanding the corruption probe that first ensnared former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) to include Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), the powerful chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Investigators are looking into whether the same lobbyists who bribed Cunningham also had a relationship with Lewis or other members of Congress. But wait - there's more. As reported in The Washington Post today, the rapidly snowballing investigation also now includes Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, who is being investigated for possible improper relationships with Brent Wilkes, the defense contractor identified as "co-conspirator #1" in the Cunningham indictment. And who, in case you hadn't heard, is Kyle "Dusty" Foggo? Until he resigned this week, he was the #3 man at the CIA, a position he was appointed to (from relative obscurity) by his former congressional boss, Porter Goss -- who as you know ALSO happened to just resign from the CIA, one week before Foggo. My goodness, where IS this going to stop?
Roll Call (subscription required) reports the Department of Justice has a newfound determination to enforce revolving door laws which had previously been ignored.
The guilty pleas of indicted Rep. Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) former deputy chief of staff Tony Rudy and Rep. Bob Ney’s (R-Ohio) former chief of staff Neil Volz, represent the first time lobbyists have been criminally charged for their work on Capitol Hill.
The New York Times also reports that Cunningham is refusing to cooperate with Pentagon investigators about the bribery scheme that landed him in jail by refusing to give up the names of other people who might be involved in it.
As followed by our friends at Talking Point Memo's Muckracker, the group which filed suit to get the records of Abramoff's visits to the White House, Judicial Watch, is a little less than happy with what they recieved yesterday: an informal document that listed a grand total of two - that's right, two - Abramoff visits to the White House. And they came without even the standard information about who he visited, and who requested the meeting. "We ... have reason to believe there are additional details about Jack Abramoff's visits to the White House that have not been disclosed," said JW President Tom Fitton in a bit of classic understatement.
House Republicans gave Rep. Ney “a standing ovation,” according to The Hill, after he refused to resign and promised to fight a likely federal indictment. Nothing like a good show of support for ethically challenged politicians.
A new poll published by The Record shows even voters in Rep. Richard Pombo’s supposedly “safe” district are fed up with his ethical problems and ties to Delay, threatening his general and even primary election campaign.