There’s nothing wrong with a Member of Congress hunting, playing golf or going out on the town with a lobbyist. The question is: Who pays, and how much? The Senate and House have established gift rules to cover the matter. So, questions need answering when a powerful committee chairman with limited resources buys $1.1 million worth of land for a hunting club — with a partner who happens to be a lobbyist who does business before his committee.
As Roll Call reported Tuesday, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) has purchased a 1,500-acre ranch in Texas to establish a hunting club with telecommunications lobbyist Wallace Henderson, a longtime political ally, as his partner. Henderson does not own a share of the ranch, but Tauzin evidently plans to pay his mortgage out of the annual dues that Henderson and other lobbyists pay to belong to the hunting club.
Before purchasing the land in April, Tauzin and Henderson founded a limited liability company, Double Creek LLC, that has legal title to the property. Henderson, a former Tauzin aide, now lobbies for the U.S. Telecom Association and the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, both with substantial business before Tauzin’s panel.
Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson insists that everything is on the up and up — that the chairman has received a four-page letter from the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct approving the arrangement and that he will fully disclose the details of the purchase, including the ethics letter, when the hunting club begins operating later this year. We think Tauzin ought to release it all now — because, as Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project declared, “something smells.”
Tauzin, a lifelong politician, reported in his latest financial statement having less than $265,000 in the bank. He earns $155,000 a year. He also owes between $100,000 and $250,000 on the mortgage for a hunting club he now operates on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Without financial backing from somewhere, mortgage brokers say, it would be difficult for Tauzin to qualify for a loan of more than $700,000 on the Texas property, though anticipated dues for the new club might offset the amount he needed to borrow. Tauzin’s office refuses to disclose how much he will charge in dues.
Purists will be mightily offended at the simple idea that the chairman of the committee that oversees telecommunications and energy policy is spending his off-hours hunting with telecom and energy lobbyists. We’ve never held the view that mere contact, even close friendship, between lobbyists and Members is corrupt. But, over time, Congress has established rules to govern the financial arrangements involved. The rule that’s missing is full disclosure of ethics letters. Tauzin says he’ll release his. Why not do so now?