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Ethics Talking Points Take Campaign Stage

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting Rep. Michael Grimm, posting ads on the Staten Island Ferry about his ethics troubles.

Staten Island Ferry riders will see a familiar face on their commute into Manhattan.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced Tuesday that it will plaster the ferry with an advertising campaign that directs commuters to what it is calling a “clearinghouse” of Rep. Michael Grimm’s (R-N.Y.) “potentially illegal fundraising” and “questionable business dealings.”

The launch of “The Grimm Files” — the name of both the ad campaign and its accompanying URL — is just the latest example of how ethics talking points are showing up in the increasingly contentious 2012 election cycle.

To be sure, highlighting the legal problems and ethical lapses of political opponents isn’t a new strategy, but it’s getting fresh traction. And the Republicans being targeted by the DCCC are in potentially competitive districts. While some Democratic House Members have their own ethics issues, most are running in safe districts.

When the DCCC launched its “Republican House of Scandal” website earlier this month, it was actually the revival of one that had been dormant since the 2006 elections, when Democrats
reclaimed control of the House partly by hitting the GOP on multiple scandals.

“We understand there were reasons for our being fired in ’06 and ’08,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told the National Review in 2010. “I think we’ve learned that that’s not a good way to gain the confidence of the people and that we ought to be instituting a zero-tolerance policy.”

Still, Democrats are making hay out of GOP ethics news.

The House of Scandal website features one “corrupt politician” each month. Recent spotlights ding Grimm and Reps. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) and Vern
Buchanan (R-Fla.).

Buchanan got additional special treatment. Several weeks ago, the DCCC announced it would post advertisements on top of Sarasota, Fla., gas pumps to “hold him accountable for the expanding federal investigations into his potentially illegal campaign finance schemes.”

The House Ethics Committee is considering two matters involving Buchanan that originated in the independent Office of Congressional Ethics. The first, related to Buchanan’s failure to disclose income and directors’ positions on his annual financial disclosure forms, is ongoing. The committee asked for additional time to consider whether to investigate the second set of unrelated and still undisclosed allegations.

“Ads like these in high-traffic, high-visibility areas ensure that Congressmen Grimm, Buchanan and others with major ethics problems can’t hide them from their constituents,” DCCC spokesman Jesse Ferguson said.

Though ethics problems plague both parties, many House Democratic Members who could take heat for active committee inquiries — Reps. Maxine Waters (Calif.), Alcee Hastings (Fla.), Jesse Jackson Jr. (Ill.) and Gregory Meeks (N.Y.) — are running in safe districts.

Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) could face tough questions as she tries to unseat Sen. Dean Heller (R), however. The Ethics Committee announced last week that it had received a referral from the OCE about Berkeley but would not take action until after the primary.

Though there are few, if any, active ethics investigations of lawmakers the National Republican Congressional Committee has targeted as vulnerable, that has not prevented moral lapses from becoming political talking points.

Earlier this month, the NRCC launched the website “How Could Tierney Not Know?” that questions how Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) could be unaware his wife was handling the financial affairs of her two brothers, one of whom is awaiting sentencing for operating an offshore gambling scheme.

“It’s certainly going to be a campaign we continue to sustain throughout the course of this Congressional race,” said NRCC spokesman Nat Sillin, who added that the committee views it as a highly competitive race.

Lawmakers have also faced ethics assaults during primaries.

Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) went on offense in the weeks leading up to his defeat of primary challenger Scott Beason.

A television advertisement that aired in Bachus’ district referenced an OCE probe of the Financial Services chairman that began after reports questioned trades listed on Bachus’ annual financial disclosure form.

“First it was CBS, then liberal Washington reporters. Now Obama’s Democrat allies want to destroy Spencer Bachus,” the spot’s narrator said.

Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) was ousted after ethics troubles became a talking point in tea party challenger Brad Wenstrup’s campaign. Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) might want to take note. She is facing a Member-vs.-Member primary against Rep. Janice Hahn in a newly drawn Los Angeles-area district and an active Ethics Committee investigation into whether she misused government resources in her bid to hold on to her seat.

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