It may be tempting to look at the latest indictment of a Republican lawmaker and conclude, as my sainted grandfather did many years ago, that “all Republicans are crooks.” A loyal Chicago Democrat through and through, none of us had the heart (or courage) to mention to grandpa a few of the more brazenly corrupt scandals that had tainted the Cook County political machine run by Richard J. Daley, the current mayor’s father.
The indicted lawmaker, Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), is charged with seven counts of lying on a financial disclosure form. Using the recent past as a guide, this is pretty tame stuff. But it is highly unlikely the prosecutors are through with the 85-year-old senator because just over the horizon are almost certain indictments for bribery relating to work done on the senator’s house to the tune of $250,000 in gifts from VECO, an oil services firm. It seems the CEO of VECO, seeking government contracts, wanted to get extra chummy with the senator and offered to pay for most of the expansion costs on Steven’s house. Actually, it worked out pretty well at first. Stevens doubled the size of his home and VECO received some nice, rich government contracts.
Alas, no good bribery scheme lasts forever. Two VECO executives have already pleaded guilty to bribery charges and the chances are very good that they will roll on Stevens and testify against him. It would be an ignoble end to a career that has defined all that is wrong with pork-barrel spending in Washington. Stevens was one of the biggest abusers of the “earmark” process and funneled tens of millions of dollars to his home state over the years in appropriations that were snuck into bills without debate or discussion.
The problem, of course, is not grandpa’s “all Republicans are crooks” meme. It’s that the rising expense of congressional campaigns and growing power of lobbyists have combined to offer temptations for corruption that have proven irresistible to a frighteningly large number of members of Congress — both Democratic and Republican — over the past 25 years.
The controlling factor regarding political corruption appears to be which party is in power at any given time, rather than any predilection toward crookedness by one party or the other. Take the Democrats of the 1980s and early 1990s. Ensconced in power for 50 years, Democrats were involved in scandal after scandal that rocked Capitol Hill. The parade of crooked pols included five House members and a senator caught up in the ABSCAM scandal where Arab businessmen/lobbyists (played with great effect and glee by FBI agents) openly offered huge dollops of cash in exchange for immigration and banking favors.
The videotapes of the encounters with the lawmakers bordered on hilarious. One greedy Democrat, after stuffing $25,000 in his coat and pants, actually asked the FBI/Arab businessman “Does it show?” All of the Congressman — including a young John Murtha who appeared to turn down the bribe but later seemed to be wavering — knew full well what was in that briefcase and they couldn’t take their eyes off of it. As a morality play, it was a huge hit.
There was Congressman Charles Diggs of Michigan who was convicted and sent to jail for receiving kickbacks from the salaries of his staff after giving them raises. The good people of his district were either unaware or didn’t care that Charlie was in the klink because, despite being jailed, he was re-elected. Diggs resigned rather than face certain expulsion.
Then there were the “Keating Five.” The Ethics Committee in the Senate determined that three Democratic senators had improperly interfered in a regulatory matter on behalf of Charles Keating, real estate mogul and owner of several Savings and Loans that had gone under. Two other senators — John McCain and John Glenn — were absolved of wrongdoing. McCain was the only Republican named in the ethics complaint.
There were others — House Speaker Jim Wright most prominent among them — who were either censured for unethical behavior or under investigation for malfeasance of one kind or another. The rash of special prosecutors during the 1990s also targeted many Democrats who served in the Clinton administration.
The adage “power corrupts” is too simple. There are many who hold power who manage to maintain their integrity. Senator Larry Pressler from South Dakota was seen on tape refusing ABSCAM money and immediately reporting the meeting to the FBI. And most congressmen and senators make an attempt to hold onto their values while serving the nation.
But in the last eight years, we have seen a serio-comic parade of Republican hooligans whose shocking greed has altered the meaning of corruption.
The rogues gallery includes:
— Feb. 22, 2008: Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Arizona) indicted on charges of extortion, wire fraud, money laundering and other crimes in an Arizona land swap that authorities say helped him collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in payoffs.
— June 11, 2007: Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) arrested in a bathroom sex sting at the Minneapolis airport. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. He is now asking a state appeals court to let him withdraw his guilty plea.
— Jan. 19, 2007: Former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for trading political favors for gifts and campaign donations from lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
— March 3, 2006: Former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-California) sentenced to eight years and four months in prison. He collected $2.4 million in homes, yachts, antique furnishings and other bribes in a corruption scheme.
— Oct. 3, 2005: Former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) charged with felony money laundering and conspiracy in connection with Republican fundraising efforts in 2002. One charge has been dropped and two others are being argued before a state appeals court.
— Aug. 29, 2003: Rep. William Janklow (R-South Dakota) charged with felony second-degree manslaughter and three misdemeanors after his car struck and killed a motorcyclist. He was convicted of vehicular homicide and sentenced to 100 days in prison.
Other shoes that could be dropping:
— John Doolittle (R-California) who is caught up in the Jack Abramoff mess and also has ties to Duke Cunninghams’s partner in crime Brent Wilkes. Either or both investigations may hit pay dirt.
— Jerry Lewis (R-California) is enmeshed in a federal investigation into a lobbying firm headed up by former Republican Congressman Bill Lowery. It is alleged that Lewis, former chairman of the Appropriations Committee, steered hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks and other appropriations to clients of Lowery who then gave to his campaign. It is one the largest bribery investigations in California history involving local governments, universities, and private companies.
— Don Young (R-Alaska) is another Alaska congressman caught up in scandal. It appears that Young inserted an earmark in the budget after the House and Senate voted on a bill (but before Bush signed it) worth $10 million to construct an interstate interchange. Nothing really extraordinary in that except the interchange was not to be located in Alaska but someplace slightly further south — in Florida. Apparently, a developer raised a lot of money for Young’s campaign just prior to the earmark being surreptitiously placed in the bill. Feds are investigating.
— Gary Miller (R-California) is under investigation by the FBI for a real nice real estate scam that’s been ongoing for years. Three separate properties he has bought for a song, sold for a ton, and then claimed the local government declared “eminent domain” forcing him to sell. Miller would then not claim the profits as taxable capital gains due to the “imminent” seizure of the property. One problem: this time, the local government of Monrovia is denying it threatened to invoke eminent domain.
— Tim Murphy (R-Pennsylvania) is under federal investigation for getting caught using his staff for campaign purposes. Note I said “getting caught” because they all skirt the line between official business and campaigning — or go over it in an overt fashion.
— Mark Foley (R-Florida) may not have broken the law but his steamy emails to barely legal kids who were former House pages epitomized a culture of corruption on the Republican-controlled Hill when it was revealed that several GOP Congressional leaders knew of Foley’s interest in the pages and did nothing.
There are also a half dozen former Republican members of Congress who are under investigation for activities carried out while they were serving in the House.
And Democrats are in trouble too. William Jefferson (D-Louisiana), last seen ordering National Guardsmen in New Orleans to assist him in saving items from his house during hurricane Katrina, was caught with $90,000 in his freezer and has been indicted on 16 counts ranging from bribery to wire fraud relating to his business dealings in Africa.
Also, Allan Mollahan (D-West Virginia) is under investigation for steering earmarks to campaign contributors and business partners.
In 2001, Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio) was sentenced to eight years in prison after being convicted of racketeering and accepting bribes.
The common thread running through almost all of these corrupt practices is cash for campaigns. The non-profit group Public Citizen spells it out in black and white:
The cost of congressional campaigns has skyrocketed, from an average of about $87,000 spent for successful House elections in 1976 (about $308,000 in 2006 dollars) to an average of $1.3 million spent on winning campaigns in 2006. Successful Senate candidates in 1976 spent an average of $609,000 (about $2.2 million in 2006 dollars), and in 2006, the average Senate winner spent an astonishing $9.6 million.
Starting the day after they are elected, House members must begin raising more than $1,000 a day to amass large enough war chests to wage their next campaign, while senators must raise more than $3,000 per day.
It’s not just the money game that has changed. Lobbyists have gone far beyond simply advocating the passage of legislation to benefit their clients. They have become one-stop shops for corruption. Junketing with their favorite members, bestowing goodies both large and small on their targets, they can also raise copious amounts of campaign cash. And the competition among the lobbyists is so ferocious that things were guaranteed to get out of hand. In the case of Jack Abramoff, they did. The lobbyist spread millions around Capitol Hill and was hugely successful in getting his clients what they wanted and needed from government. In no time, he went from a minor player into the big leagues in terms of billings.
Unless something is done to reform both campaign finance and lobbying rules, the chances are excellent that in a few years the Democrats will have their own sorry bunch of lawbreakers and scofflaws with their mugshots plastered all over the Internet. That is the culture on Capitol Hill at the moment.
And despite promises from both John McCain and Barack Obama to reform this mess, the prospects for real change seem remote.