By ZACHARY COILE
San Francisco Chronicle
December 07, 2005
More than a decade later, the roles are reversed. As the party in power, Republicans now are under fire for ethical problems ranging from Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham pleading guilty last week to taking $2.4 million in bribes, to the mushrooming scandal involving GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's indictment on charges of violating campaign finance laws. And Democrats hope to take advantage when voters go to the polls for the midterm elections next year.
But some say no matter who is caught in the criminal net, the corruption issues put a spotlight on the pervasive influence of money in politics.
"It seems to be kind of cyclical," said Melanie Sloan, a former assistant U.S. attorney and executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group. "The Republicans took over the House in large part making the case that they would clean up the House, where there had been a lot of ethics scandals. ... Here we are now, 10 or 11 years later, and apparently they learned nothing from all of that."
Political analysts and watchdog groups say the GOP's problems have been compounded by a Republican strategy, devised by DeLay, to build a long-term majority by aggressively raising money and strengthening ties between the party and lobbying firms - an initiative known as the "K Street Project," named for the downtown Washington street that houses many of the big firms.
"What you are seeing play out for the Republicans is Tom DeLay's philosophy, which is that you have to pay to play," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a campaign finance reform group that has repeatedly criticized both parties for their aggressive fundraising tactics.
"If you want to do business with Republicans, you have to give your money to Republicans - and not give any money to the Democrats - and you have to hire Republicans from the Hill to be your lobbyists," Wertheimer said.
Just over a decade ago, it was mostly Democrats who were implicated in the House's biggest scandals. House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, was forced to resign over a controversial book deal in 1989. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., a former Ways and Means Committee chairman, resigned in 1994 after he was indicted on charges of fraud, witness tampering and embezzlement. He later served 15 months in prison.
While there have been some allegations of ethical misconduct by House Democrats in recent years, charges of corruption tend to follow the party in power, which sets the legislative agenda and controls the government's purse strings.
"It would be difficult to bribe a Democrat, particularly a Democrat in the House, because they can't deliver anything," said Sloan, whose group has criticized the conduct of lawmakers from both parties. "You need to have power to abuse it."
Ethical problems in Congress have also been exacerbated by a lack of effective oversight by outside agencies and by lawmakers themselves.
Critics say the Federal Election Commission has been a weak watchdog over campaign contributions because it was structured by Congress to have an equal number of Democratic and Republican appointees - often leading to deadlock and inaction on key decisions.
The House Ethics Committee, which is charged with enforcing ethics rules, has been slow to investigate abuses - partly because lawmakers are too afraid of retaliation if they file complaints against their colleagues. In February, GOP leaders ousted the panel's chairman, Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., who had clashed with DeLay, and installed as chairman Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., seen as more loyal to the party's leadership.
"When everyone in Washington knows the agency that is supposed to enforce campaign finance laws is not going to do it and the ethics committees are moribund, you create a situation where there is no sheriff," Wertheimer said. "You end up in the Wild West, and that's the context we've been operating under in recent years."
Over the last year, the Justice Department has emerged as the leading force in shining light on potential wrongdoing in Congress in its investigations of Cunningham and lawmakers who had close ties to Abramoff.
Democrats and Republicans expressed shock last week after Cunningham, a 63-year-old Vietnam War flying ace and eight-term congressman, admitted he took $2.4 million in bribes. As a senior member of the House Appropriations subcommittee for defense, he steered contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to defense contractors who financed his lavish lifestyle, including a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., use of a private yacht, a Rolls-Royce, Persian rugs, and a 19th century Louis-Philippe commode.
While the extent of the gifts Cunningham received was extraordinary, some lawmakers acknowledged there is a culture within the Congress that taking certain perks from lobbyists is acceptable.
Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., who has served in the House for 32 years, said he's heard members talk about wanting to play golf, and discussing which lobbyist they should call to set them up.
"They'll say, 'Want to play golf today? Who can we call? Let's call this guy,' " Stark said.
Under House rules, lawmakers are limited from accepting gifts greater than $50 in value, but watchdog groups say many gifts - such as expensive dinners or golf outings - simply go unreported.
"There are few places where members of Congress want to play golf where the greens fees are under $50," Sloan said.
She added, "You are never allowed to travel for a golf trip. If you are going to give a speech, you are supposed to, under the rules, stay in the place only as long as is necessary to actually give the speech. You don't get to spend three days at a luxury resort, give a speech, and then spend the other two days playing golf."
Travel records show that DeLay and Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, accepted golfing trips to Scotland arranged by Abramoff and paid for by the Tigua Indian tribe, which was seeking Congress' help in reopening a Texas casino. Ney and DeLay have said they did not know the tribe paid for their trips, but Ney has acknowledged he agreed to introduce legislation backing the tribe's efforts to reopen the casino.
Most worrisome for many lawmakers is that a key Abramoff associate, former DeLay aide Michael Scanlon, has agreed to plead guilty to bribing lawmakers and cooperate with investigators, which may increase the chances of criminal charges against some lawmakers.
The Associated Press has reported that three dozen lawmakers accepted campaign contributions from Abramoff and two of his tribal clients. Many of the lawmakers - including House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. - followed the donations by writing letters to Interior Secretary Gale Norton urging her to reject a casino project that would have hurt the interests of Abramoff's clients, the Louisiana Coushatta and Mississippi Choctaw tribes.
"We may still be at the very beginning of this scandal," said Larry Noble, a former elections commission general counsel who now runs the Center for Responsive Politics. "We've seen a lot of names come up, people who have written letters for individual tribes. ... Maybe there will be no evidence of a direct quid pro quo, but the spotlight will be on them."
Democrats are already using the indictments and allegations of corruption as a centerpiece of their 2006 congressional campaign.
"Every day another indictment, guilty plea, a special election," said John Lapp, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which recruits candidates and raises money for the party's effort to retake the House.
"When you have a number of indictments and the scope of the Abramoff investigation, it's not just the culture of corruption - it's the cost to voters of the culture of corruption," he said, linking the Republican Congress' passage of tax breaks for oil and natural gas producers, the Medicare drug benefit and cuts in student loans to the party's ties to big business and big donations.
But Republicans scoff at the notion that individual House members' ethical problems will translate into a Democratic tide.
"When you look back 20 or 30 years, it's hard to find members who lost re-election because of what someone else did," said Ed Patru, deputy communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
"Trying to take back the House based on Duke Cunningham or Abramoff sounds good inside the Beltway, but the reality is House races are local races. ... Ethics is a losing issue for the Democrats."
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