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.
Two current Democratic lawmakers, Reps. Jan Schakowsky (Ill.) and Juanita Millender-McDonald (Calif.), even have close family members behind bars.
Robert Creamer, Schakowsky’s husband, is incarcerated in the Federal Correctional Institution in Terre Haute, Ind., where he is serving five months for bank fraud and failure to pay withholding taxes as part of a check-kiting scheme. Creamer, who is scheduled to be released on Nov. 9, also will have to serve 11 months of home detention.
Roderick Keith McDonald, Millender-McDonald’s son, is serving a 41-month prison sentence for mail fraud, money laundering, bribery and conspiracy to extort. He will be released on Dec. 31, 2008.
Ballance’s son, Garey, a former judge, was just released from federal prison on Aug. 31 after serving a nine-month sentence for tax evasion. The younger Ballance failed to pay taxes on a $20,000 gift from his father.
Ney, who signed onto a plea agreement with federal prosecutors last week after nearly two years of denials, is expected to receive the lightest sentence of any of the incarcerated pols. Justice Department officials have agreed to recommend a 27-month term for the Ohio Republican. Ney is currently in an alcohol-abuse treatment center receiving counseling for what he called a “dependency” problem.
Ballance was sentenced to four years in prison for fraud and money laundering related to more than $300,000 in state funds that Ballance steered to a North Carolina nonprofit he controlled. Ballance is not scheduled to be released from federal custody until June 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
Ballance, who served one term in the House after nearly 20 years in the North Carolina Legislature, recently applied to have his conviction overturned, although a federal appeals court asked him to resubmit his application because it wasn’t filed on the proper form. Ballance argues that federal prosecutors “wired” his case by threatening family members, including his 86-year-old mother, with jail terms unless he cooperated with the FBI. He also alleges that prosecutors “made false and/or misleading answers to the court about alleged evidence in my case,” according to a legal document filed by Ballance.
Cunningham, whose case has kicked off a wider investigation by the Justice Department into spending earmarks and government contracts, received eight years and four months — the longest prison term ever meted out to a former lawmaker — for taking more than $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors, as well as tax evasion and fraud. Cunningham’s sentence is set to expire in June 2013.
Traficant, who was convicted of bribery, fraud and racketeering in 2002, among other charges, was sentenced to eight years in prison. He will be in prison until at least September 2009.