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With Rep. Bob Ney’s (R-Ohio) guilty plea on federal corruption charges last Friday and a stint in prison looming for the lawmaker, the House suddenly finds the ranks of its alumni behind bars growing to a level not seen in a decade.
When Ney heads off to prison, likely sometime next year, he will become the fourth Member to be locked up for criminal behavior, and the Ohio Republican may not be the last. Ney will join ex-Reps. James Traficant (D-Ohio), Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) and Frank Ballance (D-N.C.), all of whom currently are being held in federal correctional facilities. Ney will appear in front of a federal judge on Oct. 13 to formally plead guilty to conspiracy and making false statements.
Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) could join this group of disgraced Members soon. Jefferson is at the center of a federal bribery probe that already has resulted in lengthy prison terms for two men involved in the scandal, including Brett Pfeffer, a former Jefferson aide. Jefferson has not been charged in the case and has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, but FBI agents turned up $90,000 in marked bills in Jefferson’s freezer when they searched his home last year.
In fact, not since the early 1990s, when the House Bank, Post Office and Page scandals were roiling Capitol Hill and prematurely ending dozens of political careers, have so many lawmakers been in prosecutors’ sights.
From 1993 to 1996, 10 Members went to prison for varying lengths of time, and at least four, and possibly as many as six, were imprisoned at the same time, according to media reports. The list of jailed lawmakers included House stalwarts such as Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), the powerful chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. The stench of corruption emanating from the Democrat-controlled House helped Republicans win control of the chamber in 1994, and they immediately instituted a reform agenda that included new restrictions on lobbyists and gifts to lawmakers and staff.
Rep. Jay Kim (R-Calif.), convicted in 1997 for campaign finance violations, barely avoided jail time and instead was sentenced to two months of electronic home detention when he should have been out on the re-election trail. Kim was defeated in a GOP primary in 1998.
There were so many ex-Members in the slammer during the 1990s that Roll Call, at that time, debuted the “Jailbird Caucus” to help its readers keep track of who was in, and who was out, of prison.
A decade earlier, the Abscam scandal of 1980-81 ended up landing six House Members and a Senator in prison, and the seven served contemporaneous prison sentences between one and three years.
Unlike previous periods when scandals plagued Congress, the current wave of corruption convictions does not involve a single thread of illicit behavior, although the Abramoff affair still has the potential to spread on Capitol Hill. So far, seven individuals, including Ney and Abramoff himself, have pleaded guilty or been convicted in that investigation. Adam Kidan, Abramoff’s business partner in the purchase of a Florida cruise ship company, also has pleaded guilty to fraud charges not directly tied to the Washington, D.C., scandal.
Rather, up until this time, it is a series of smaller scandals involving individual lawmakers and their donors, staffers and families, that has brought down Members.