Jack Abramoff may be in jail, but the ethics woes of Republicans are hardly locked away with him.
Despite efforts to scrub themselves of the ethical stain that hurt them in the 2006 elections and helped ensure the loss of their House and Senate majorities, Republicans may still be plagued by scandal in 2008.
Of the 11 lawmakers known to be facing trouble with the law, nine are Republicans. Luckily for the GOP, two of them heeded pressure from their colleagues and announced their retirement: most recently Rep. John Doolittle (Calif.), who is being investigated for his Abramoff ties, and Rep. Rick Renzi (Ariz.), whose family business was raided in April by FBI agents examining a suspicious land deal.
Stefan Passantino, head of the political law practice at McKenna Long & Aldrich, said the focus on Republicans represents the legal system catching up to the alleged ethical misdeeds of a longtime Congressional majority.
“It’s always a problem,” said Passantino, who has represented former Speakers Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). “The ethics issues and the culture of corruption mantras still resonate with the public.”
For instance, people outside of Idaho likely will have heard about GOP Sen. Larry Craig, who was going to resign after pleading guilty to a charge stemming from his arrest in a Minneapolis airport restroom. But Craig changed his mind and is appealing his guilty plea — and staying in Congress until the next election.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R) and Rep. Don Young (R) of Alaska are embroiled in the Justice Department’s wide-ranging corruption probe into oil-services giant VECO. No charges have yet been lodged against the lawmakers, however, and they maintain their innocence.
And a new federal prosecutor in Los Angeles — plus the conviction of defense contractor Brent Wilkes — could breathe life into the probe of House Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis’ (R-Calif.) ties to former Rep. turned lobbyist Bill Lowery (R-Calif.).
Two Democrats also are on the hot seat. The corruption trial of Rep. William Jefferson (La.) is set to start Feb. 25 in Alexandria, Va., and there are indications that a subpoena was served last March in the probe into earmarks obtained by Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.).
Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.)
On July 24, 2007, D.C.-area FBI agents pulled the Congressman’s personal financial records for 2006 and 2007 after allegations that he repeatedly earmarked money for development near land that he owns.
But there is no evidence there is a formal investigation under way, and the Congressman has not retained counsel.
Calvert maintains he has done nothing wrong, and he produced a May 2007 letter from the House ethics committee that greenlighted a $5.6 million earmark for a transit center in his district one-tenth of a mile from property he owns and less than a mile from four of his other properties.
In 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported that Calvert and a business partner earned a profit of about a half-million dollars in less than a year on a land deal. The report found that while he owned the land, Calvert earmarked $1.5 million for commercial development nearby and $8 million for a freeway exchange 16 miles away.
A week after that, a California FBI agent pulled Calvert’s financial disclosure forms for 2000 through 2005.
Calvert’s GOP colleagues don’t seem worried; he won a coveted House Appropriations Committee slot in May despite a campaign by conservative bloggers against him.
Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho)
Craig continues to try to reverse his guilty plea to disorderly conduct after allegedly being caught soliciting gay sex last June in a Minneapolis-St. Paul airport men’s room. On Jan. 8, his lawyers, led by Billy Martin, filed a brief with the Minnesota Court of Appeals arguing that a lower court erred in refusing to overturn that plea. The state has 45 days to respond.
Craig’s lawyers argue that his plea “lacks a sufficient factual basis” because the disorderly conduct statute says such behavior must affect more than one person (the only person affected, say Craig’s lawyers, was Sgt. Dave Karsnia of the airport police), the behavior was invited by Karsnia, and it cannot be legally characterized as “offensive, obscene, abusive, boisterous or noisy.”
Meanwhile, Craig has pledged to stay in Congress until the end of his term. It’s unclear where a Senate ethics investigation into his actions stands.
Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.)
Under pressure from the long-running probe into his ties with Abramoff, Doolittle announced his retirement on Jan. 10.
The California Congressman has yet to be indicted, however, and the Justice Department investigation into his Abramoff ties continues. Three aides to Doolittle — his scheduler, Alisha Perkins, Chief of Staff Ron Rogers and Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Blankenburg — testified in September before a grand jury at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Doolittle denies wrongdoing and is fighting a subpoena issued to the House Chief Administrative Officer for previous e-mails, citing separation of powers conflicts.
Under pressure from colleagues, Doolittle stepped down from the House Appropriations Committee after his Oakton, Va., home was raided by FBI officials in April. Investigators were looking for records related to Doolittle’s wife Julie’s home-based fundraising business.
The Doolittles have several ties to Abramoff. Julie Doolittle was on retainer for Abramoff from September 2002 to February 2004. Doolittle accepted campaign contributions from the former super-lobbyist and intervened with the Interior Department on behalf of Abramoff’s tribal clients.
Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.)
Feeney’s name continues to arise in connection with the wide-ranging probe into Abramoff’s activities. In June, the lawmaker established a legal defense fund to deal with expenses related to the case.
The problems for Feeney revolve around his participation in the infamous 2003 golf trip to Scotland paid for by Abramoff. As the trip violated House rules barring lobbyists from paying for travel, Feeney forked over $5,643 to the U.S. Treasury to cover his portion of the trip. But Abramoff records put the cost of the sojourn at $160,000, meaning Feeney’s share could be more like $20,000.
Feeney has acknowledged contacts between his attorneys and the Justice Department, though he says he has done nothing wrong. In April, the FBI, according to press accounts, sought more information about e-mails written by ex-Feeney Chief of Staff Jason Roe to three Florida newspapers about the Scotland junket.
Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.)
Jefferson is fighting a long court battle over whether he traded his influence with African officials for money for his family members and himself as outlined in a sensational 16-count indictment last June.
While the trial originally was scheduled to start Jan. 16, Judge T.S. Ellis of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia agreed to delay it to Feb. 25 after the defense offered a slew of motions to suppress evidence it claims was unlawfully gathered by the FBI.
Thus, Jefferson defense attorney Robert Trout of Trout Cacheris and lead prosecutor Mark Lytle are battling it out in a pretrial standoff. Jefferson is actively engaged in the proceedings, attending courthouse hearings and taking notes though not talking to the press.
Meanwhile, prosecutors are fighting a separate battle to use information gathered in a search of Jefferson’s office in the Rayburn House Office Building that defense attorneys say violated the Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause. The Justice Department has appealed a lower court ruling in Jefferson’s favor to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.)
A Los Angeles grand jury continues to examine the Appropriations ranking member and ex-chairman’s ties to Lowery, a partner in the lobbying firm formerly known as Copeland Lowery Jacquez Denton & White.
The probe is an outgrowth of the investigation into convicted ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) and is focusing on Lewis’ ties to the former Congressman and whether he improperly earmarked funds to Lowery’s clients. Lowery and his clients were big Lewis campaign contributors. Prosecutors may be aided by the 2007 conviction of Wilkes for bribing Cunningham; Wilkes was a Lowery client and a Lewis acquaintance.
After silence for some time, the grand jury showed signs of life in October when it subpoenaed the testimony and records of Greg Lankler, a Lewis staffer with the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. The House counsel is fighting to quash the subpoena based on the grounds that it is overly broad.
Over the summer, local FBI agents examined the personal financial records of Lewis and top current and former staffers, including Deputy Staff Director Jeff Shockey; Arlene Willis, Lewis’ wife and chief of staff in his personal office; and ex-top aide Letitia White, who formerly worked for Lowery’s lobbying shop.
Yet the federal probe has been slowed by staff vacancies and turnover in the Los Angeles district attorney’s office. But it could be revitalized by Thomas O’Brien, who was appointed by the White House in July to head up the office.
Unfazed, Lewis has announced he will seek re-election to a 16th term.
Rep. Gary Miller (R-Calif.)
Last November, Miller told the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin that reports of an FBI investigation into his land deals were “stupid.”
“I know of no ongoing investigation into any of these deals,” Miller said, according to the newspaper. “They never have contacted me. I think they have all the documents, read them and saw nothing there.”
About a year ago, FBI agents requested information from officials in the California cities of Monrovia and Fontana to investigate claims that Miller may have sheltered millions in profits from land sales from capital gains taxes.
A successful real estate developer before being elected to Congress in 1998, the Los Angeles Times reported that Miller was able to defer taxes until 2009 by claiming he was forced to sell land to the local governments in 2002, and again in 2005 and 2006, under eminent domain.
FBI agents sought a videotape from a 2000 Monrovia City Council meeting in which Miller is alleged to have asked four times for city officials to buy his land.
It’s unclear where the investigation stands now, but Miller seems to think that offense is the best defense.
Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.)
The federal probe into Mollohan’s finances seems to be in limbo, at least for now. The last public information regarding it was a March report in The (Morgantown, W.Va.) Dominion Post that said a grand jury based in Washington, D.C., had issued a subpoena connected to it.
After the conservative National Legal and Policy Center filed a complaint with the feds in February 2006, Mollohan stepped down from his post as ranking member on the ethics committee. When Democrats regained the majority, he recused himself from overseeing the Justice Department budget as chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and science.
The allegations concern the Democrat’s steering $202 million in federal largess to five West Virginia nonprofit groups run by friends and campaign contributors, some of whom have participated in lucrative real estate deals with him.
The government may be moving glacially, but the probe has affected Mollohan’s ability to bring home the bacon. The Congressman voluntarily stripped earmarks in 2007 from the Canaan Valley Institute, one of the nonprofits in question, in order to avoid controversy for the overall appropriations bill.
Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.)
The Republican won’t seek re-election in 2008 after FBI agents raided a family business in Sonoita, Ariz., in April 2006.
The raid was part of the inquiry into a land deal that yielded a whopping $4.5 million for the Congressman and his former business partner and campaign donor, James Sandlin. The Federal Election Commission dropped a parallel probe into Renzi’s 2002 campaign after the Congressman paid substantial back taxes.
So it was no surprise that the Arizona Republican, who had resigned his seats on three House panels following the raid, announced after the August recess that he would retire from Congress.
His fellow Republicans likely appreciate it.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska)
The Alaskan legend has been snared in a wide-ranging corruption probe led by the Justice Department into Alaska’s public officials, including Stevens’ son, former state Senate President Ben Stevens.
Investigators are probing if workers for VECO, an Alaskan oil-services company whose top officials have pleaded guilty to bribery and are cooperating with the government, illegally remodeled Stevens’ Alaska home. Stevens maintains he has done nothing wrong and that he reimbursed VECO for all the bills presented to him.
During trials of other state officials last fall, former VECO CEO Bill Allen testified that the company paid for the 2000 renovation, but he said he did not know what it cost.
More damaging details for Stevens could emerge as trials of other state lawmakers continue. In July, the FBI and Internal Revenue Service spent 12 hours searching Stevens’ home and documenting the renovation.
Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska)
Like Stevens, Young has not been charged with anything, but his name has been floated by various players in the VECO scandal.
The 18-term Congressman spent $447,000 on legal fees during 2007.
VECO employees are among Young’s biggest campaign contributors, and prosecutors are said to be looking at cash prizes distributed to Young at an Alaskan golf tournament allegedly arranged by VECO Vice President Rick Smith. Smith, who pleaded guilty to bribery and is cooperating with prosecutors, allowed the government to listen in on his phone calls with the Congressman.
Young amended his campaign filings in 2006 to reflect a $38,000 reimbursement for “fundraising costs” to Allen.
Democrats clearly smell blood. Three prominent Democrats are running against Young in 2008; one Republican, state Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, plans to take him on in the primary.