Curt Weldon: The Congressman Who Came In from the Cold

From 1987 to 2007 Pennsylvania Republican Curt Weldon served in the U.S. House of Representatives, rising to assume the vice-chairmanship of the powerful Armed Services Committee. A Russia maven (he speaks the language), he also co-chaired the Duma-Congress Study Group, the official liaison between the American and Russian legislatures.

In November 2006, he was defeated by Democrat Joe Sestak, contributing to the Republican Party's loss of control in the House. Part of the reason for his loss, no doubt, was the report - just a few months before the election - that he was being investigated by the Justice Department for corrupt influence peddling.

On October 15th, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the investigation began in response to a 2004 report in the Los Angeles Times about Weldon's efforts to seek lucrative lobbying and consulting contracts for his daughter Karen involving murky forces in Russia and Serbia. The day after the newspaper report blew their cover, FBI agents raided Karen's home and office (as well as those of several other Weldon associates) and carted off boxes of evidence. Two days after that, the Washington Post reported that a grand jury had been impaneled

Now, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that a former congressional aide of Weldon's has "admitted in court proceedings that his wife received unreported payments from an arms-control group with ties to top security officials in the Russian government. Rep. Weldon had sought a federal grant for the Russian organization, known as International Exchange Group [IEG], according to the people familiar with the inquiry. Rep. Weldon's former aide, Russell Caso, pleaded guilty in December to failing to disclose payments made to his wife, but the origin of the funds wasn't identified."

The WSJ concludes: "The Weldon inquiry is significant in part because it is an element of a broader U.S. Justice Department probe into what officials suspect are efforts by Russian-backed firms to gain influence or gather information in Washington." That's the polite way of saying that, knowingly or unknowingly, Weldon may have been spying for the Kremlin.

Arms control, of course, is crucial to Russia - just as it was to the USSR. Many believe that it was Ronald Reagan's reinvigoration of the arms race that finally pushed the Soviet Union into bankruptcy, and today's Russia is even less well position to wage such a struggle than was the USSR. And yet, it has an even stronger impulse than the USSR did for confrontation, being desirous of regaining hegemony in places like Ukraine and Georgia which have fled the Soviet sphere.

While serving on the Armed Services Committee, the WSJ says, Weldon heavily promoted IEG, headed by one Vladimir Petrosyan and "comprised of senior [Russian] military, intelligence and political officials. The group was established by President Vladimir Putin's plenipotentiary representative to the Duma . . . [and] includes the key people who are personally friendly with Putin, including the deputy chief of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB." That company, it now turns out, paid Weldon's aide $19,000 for a no-show editing job.

And it gets worse. The WJS reports: "One person who dealt with Mr. Petrosyan said he used a business card with the House of Representatives seal that identified him as an adviser to Mr. Weldon. In addition to International Exchange Group, federal investigators are looking at Mr. Weldon's actions on behalf of a natural-gas company, Itera International Energy LLC, which has longstanding connections to alleged Russian organized-crime figures, according to U.S. law-enforcement officials. Itera gave Mr. Weldon's daughter Karen a $500,000 lobbying contract."

Weldon has now transferred all the money he has left over from his last campaign to a legal defense fund. He remains under investigation but has not yet been charged.

In June 2001, U.S. President George Bush met Russian "President" Vladimir Putin for the first time, a summit in Slovenia. After the meeting, he declared: "I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue." Since then, Putin has flouted the spirit of the Russian constitution by jury-rigging the election of a hand-picked successor and then retaining the reins of power as prime minister. We now routinely see Russian nuclear bombers buzzing targets and causing the scrambling of fighters in the U.S., Japan, Norway and Britain. Is it any wonder that, given this "leadership" from the President, many of those who follow him have been led astray?

John McCain, by contrast, has boldly called for Russia's ouster from the G-8, and is facing a smear campaign as a result, for instance on from the likes of Fareed Zakaria. Some accuse McCain of not being a "real" Republican. But judged by the standard of the President Bush and Weldon, McCain is the second coming of Reagan.

Republicans would do well to remember that when the decide how fervently to support their party in November.