GOP officials have seized on the downfall of Jon Corzine, the embattled Wall Street investor and former Democratic politician who returns to Capitol Hill for questioning today, as a political gift.
But the controversy around Corzine, who’s emerged as a symbol of reckless Wall Street trading, may hold as much peril for Republicans as it does for Democrats. While Corzine has given $3.9 million to Democrats over two decades, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — money that National Republican Congressional Committee officials now say is tainted and should be returned — Republicans have also been well-funded by his firm.
Employees at MF Global, the now-bankrupt brokerage firm where Corzine was CEO, have given big money to Republicans as well as Democrats over the years, including to the NRCC. Moreover, Washington lobbying firms that MF Global retained gave a disproportionate share of their campaign donations to Republicans.
That hasn’t stopped the NRCC from calling on Democratic lawmakers and party officials who received donations from Corzine, the former New Jersey governor and Senator, to give the money back. NRCC officials have called on 10 House Democrats who received direct Corzine donations to return them.
They’ve also called on 13 potentially vulnerable lawmakers in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Frontline program to return money they received from the DCCC, trumpeting the $150,000 the DCCC has taken from Corzine.
“If you continue to keep this money in your campaign coffers, then you’re endorsing the corruption attached to the person who gave you that money,” NRCC spokeswoman Joanna Burgos said. She said lawmakers who took DCCC money, even though they did not receive donations directly from Corzine, are “being hypocritical” if they do not ask the committee to return it.
So far only one House Member — Rep. Kathy Hochul (N.Y.) — has responded to the NRCC challenge, donating $2,500 from Corzine to a local veterans’ charity. Others on the NRCC list, including Rep. Frank Pallone (N.J.), who received a direct donation from Corzine, and Rep. Kurt Schrader (Ore.), who received DCCC money, declined to comment.
It’s not the first time the NRCC has pressured Democrats to return ostensibly scandal-tainted money. Both DCCC and NRCC officials have issued such calls, Burgos said, but she added: “I can’t think back to an instance where they were as successful as we were.”
Following the Clinton administration scandal involving illegal foreign donors, the Democratic National Committee returned $3 million in questionable contributions. Dozens of lawmakers from both parties returned donations from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was recently released from jail, though NRCC officials said at the time that they did not recommend that GOP candidates return money from Abramoff or his clients.
“The NRCC hypocrisy is laughable as they keep money from Jack Abramoff, who was convicted of crime, and now have a finance chairman, Vern Buchanan, who is under criminal investigation for a fundraising scheme,” DCCC spokesman Jesse Ferguson said. Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) is the target of a Justice Department probe involving allegations that he received pass-through contributions from employees at car dealerships he owned.
Most recently, a long list of House Democrats returned more than a half-million dollars’ worth of contributions from Reps. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.) and Maxine Waters (Calif.), amid ethics controversies.
But the Corzine matter underscores the limits and pitfalls of holding lawmakers accountable for the bad behavior of their donors. While the NRCC touts that Corzine has given the DCCC $150,000, that figure covers a two-decade time span. In this election cycle and the one preceding it, Corzine’s DCCC donations totaled only $15,000.
MF Global employees as a whole have given out just under $385,000 in campaign contributions since 2005, according to the Sunlight Foundation, roughly a quarter of it to Republicans, including more than $5,000 to the NRCC. MF Global also has spent more than $2 million on lobbying since 2006, according to the CRP, retaining the Delta Strategy Group, Quinn Gillespie & Associates and the Rich Feuer Group to represent it.
Lobbyists at those firms have in turn doled out millions in campaign contributions over the last several years. In the 2010 election cycle, more than half of the $440,000 or so that Quinn Gillespie employees gave out went to Republican candidates. In this election cycle and the two previous ones, firm partners and associates gave $17,750 to the NRCC. More than half of the $104,600 that Rich Feuer Group employees gave out in the last election cycle went to Republicans.
Both Democrats and Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee grilled Corzine at a public hearing last week, and their Senate counterparts are expected to do so today. Corzine has said that he cannot explain how some $1.2 billion in customer funds have gone missing or how the firewall between customer and firm funds broke down. Affected investors include Farm Belt corn growers and ranchers.
The House Financial Services Committee has also scheduled a Thursday hearing on the collapse of MF Global, which is the target of civil and criminal investigations as well. For leaders from both parties, the hearings are furnishing an opportunity to assail Wall Street abuses. When it comes to Wall Street money, though, not many on Capitol Hill can claim to have clean hands.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.