Members Misbehaving: Congress’ Top Scandals
From Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal of a naïve and idealistic young Senator in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” to Eddie Murphy’s 1992 performance in “The Distinguished Gentleman,” Hollywood has always shown a fondness for depicting corruption in Congress.
Thumbing through the pages of old Roll Calls, there’s little question where Hollywood gets its inspiration for such characters.
Because Capitol Hill is no stranger to scandal, narrowing the long list of Members’ misdeeds over the past 50 years to just 10 transgressions that really mattered was no easy task.
But with the help of government watchdogs and Roll Call’s yellowing bound volumes, we’ve compiled what we think is a pretty solid list.
From lust to greed, the misconduct chronicled here encompasses nearly every vice of human nature. And all share one important feature: For better or for worse, they all altered the institution in a significant way.
Indeed, the failure to find a long-lasting impact has left some of Congress’ more memorable miscreants off our list. Reps. Jim Traficant (D-Ohio) and Jay Kim (D-Calif.), for instance, fall into this category.
We also excluded then-House Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.), who drove into the Tidal Basin while in the company of Fanne Foxe, a stripper known as the Argentine Firecracker, and then-House Administration Chairman Wayne Hays (D-Ohio), who placed on his office payroll the 27-year-old bombshell Elizabeth Ray, who once memorably remarked, “I can’t type, I can’t file, I can’t even answer the phone.”
Absent too are Rep. Gary Condit (D-Calif.), whose career was ruined when it was revealed that he had a personal relationship with murdered intern Chandra Levy, as well as former Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), who received a slap on the wrist from the House ethics committee for activities related to his relationship with his former chief of staff, transportation lobbyist Ann Eppard.
“While plenty of careers and images have been sent to the shredder over people having sex with the wrong person, those revelations haven’t changed a thing,” said Danielle Bryan, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight.
Other regretted episodes in Congressional history — such as Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s (R) anti-communist witchhunt — just missed the cut-off date for inclusion. His infamous hearings ended in 1954.
And while we included ethics cases involving former House Speakers Jim Wright (D-Texas) and Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), we chose to omit the ongoing controversy surrounding House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), because DeLay’s long-term legacy is unresolved.
Here are the scandals, in chronological order.
Bobby Baker, 1963
The cover of the Nov. 8, 1963, issue of Life Magazine said it all: “CAPITAL BUZZES OVER STORIES OF MISCONDUCT IN HIGH PLACES: THE BOBBY BAKER BOMBSHELL.”
A one-time page and protégé to Sen. Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas), Robert G. “Bobby” Baker was practically running the Senate in the early 1960s when he served as a top aide to Johnson and secretary to the Majority Leader.
Literally known as the 101st Senator, Baker hit a brick wall 1963, when stories began circulating about his extra-curricular activities, including rumors of possible mob connections — they were never definitively proven — and allegations of influence-peddling.
“The initial charges concerned a Baker sideline occupation, something called the Quorum Club, which served as a private gathering place for senators, congressmen, lobbyists, government officials and assorted hangers-on, including attractive women,” former Secretary of the Senate Frank Valeo, recalled in “A Different Kind of Senate,” his 1999 memoir of serving under Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.).
According to Valeo, the club was located in the Carroll Arms Hotel, a mere stones throw from where the Russell Senate Office Building stands today — though it was eventually torn down to make room for the Capitol Police headquarters. Roll Call Founding Editor Sid Yudain, incidentally, was also a founding member of the infamous boy’s club.
Eventually, Baker was the subject of Congressional hearings on corruption charges related to several large defense contracts. He was later convicted of criminal charges involving the misuse of his office and campaign contributions.
But the lasting legacy of the Baker affair was the creation of the Select Committee on Standards and Conduct, the chamber’s first permanent internal disciplinary committee.
Adam Clayton Powell, 1967
In 1967, the House voted to “exclude” Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D-N.Y.) from Congress after an Education and Labor Committee investigation concluded that the Congressman had used panel funding for personal travel. The panel also determined that Powell had probably paid his wife with Congressional funds for services she hadn’t provided.
But it wasn’t Powell’s actions that made this case so important. Powell was a larger-than-life black lawmaker — one of only a few in the House at the time — who was dubbed “Mr. Civil Rights” because of his aggressive activism.
In June 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that the House’s exclusion of Powell from the 90th Congress was unconstitutional, since he had met all the qualifications for serving. Powell was finally seated after his re-election to the 91st Congress.
Stan Brand, a defense attorney and former general counsel to the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, once described the “infamous” case as a “low point” in Congress’ exercise of its self-disciplinary powers.
Powell did not get off unscathed, however. He was ultimately fined $25,000 and had his seniority reduced. He was not re-elected in 1970 and died of prostate cancer two years later at the age of 63.
Short for “Arab Scam,” this 1980 sting operation claimed the careers of six House Members and a Senator who were convicted on bribery and conspiracy charges after they were captured on video taking cash bribes from FBI agents disguised as Arab sheiks.
“I’ve got larceny in my blood,” said one of those lawmakers, Rep. John Jenrette (D-S.C.), who was defeated for re-election in November 1980 and then resigned Dec. 10 as the House ethics committee was preparing a resolution to oust him.
Rep. Michael “Ozzie” Myers (D-Pa.) earned the dubious distinction of being the first Member of Congress expelled since the Civil War.
Others snared in the FBI’s $800,000 operation were: Sen. Harrison Williams (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Labor Committee; Rep. John Murphy (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee; Rep. Frank Thompson (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Administration Committee; and Reps. Richard Kelly (R-Fla.) and Raymond Lederer (D-Pa.).
Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) was named an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the case but was eventually cleared by the House ethics committee. To this day, Murtha remains a senior House Democrat.
Some argued that the sting operation, while good on television, was nothing more than a political witchhunt. But Bryan of the Project on Government Oversight pointed out, Abscam was “an important reminder that Congress mirrors the general population — it has its share of stupid people and petty criminals.”
The FBI investigation “heightened awareness” among lawmakers “that they should at least look for hidden cameras before stuffing $25,000 into their pockets,” she said.
House Page Scandal, 1983
Forget Monica Lewinsky. In the early 1980s, a so-called “sex and drugs investigation” by the House ethics committee revealed the worst nightmare of every parent of an honor roll student: Members of Congress having sex with underage House pages.
In 1983, the ethics panel determined that Reps. Dan Crane (R-Ill.) and Gerry Studds (D-Mass.) had both engaged in sexual relationships with Congressional pages, both 17-year-old minors.
Crane, a married father of six, was apologetic about his 1980 relationship with the young female page. But Studds, who was outed as gay by the episode, was unrepenting about his involvement with a teenage boy 10 years earlier.
Gingrich, then a junior Republican, demanded the expulsion of his disgraced colleagues. But the House as a whole was more forgiving, voting to censure both Crane and Studds. Crane lost re-election in 1984, though Studds was handily re-elected until he retired in 1996.
Both the House ethics committee and Justice Department failed to find any evidence that Members were involved in a cocaine-distribution ring on Capitol Hill, though the $2 million probe did snag six low-level Congressional employees. Among those prosecuted were employees of the House Doorkeeper’s office and a Senate elevator operator.
The Keating Five, 1989-1991
At an April 1989 press conference, savings and loan kingpin Charles Keating made no bones about what he wanted in exchange for the $1.4 million he’d given to Sens. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), Don Riegle (D-Mich.), Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), John Glenn (D-Ohio) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).
“One question … had to do with whether my financial support in any way influenced several political figures to take up my cause. I want to say in the most forceful way I can: I certainly hope so,” Keating said.
With federal bank officials bearing down on his failed Lincoln Savings and Loan, the tycoon hoped that his friends on the Senate Banking Committee might use their connections to put the brakes on a government investigation.
Keating — who was ultimately shown to have bilked investors of millions of dollars — became a poster boy for greed, and the five lawmakers were infamously dubbed the “Keating Five.”
Following a lengthy investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee in 1991 and 1992, Cranston was formally reprimanded on the floor of the Senate and retired in 1991. The California Senator had received more than $865,000 from Keating.
The other four Senators involved in the matter were admonished, though all suffered through months — and in some cases, years — of bad publicity.
DeConcini and Riegle did not seek re-election in 1994. Glenn retired in 1999.
Arguably the most significant development to come out of the scandal was the transformation it sparked in McCain. He received only a mild rebuke from the Ethics Committee for exercising “poor judgment” for intervening with the federal regulators on behalf of Keating, but turned the negative episode into a hard-charging crusade to pass campaign finance reform.
Jim Wright, 1989
In May 1989, following two intense years of ethics investigations, Rep. Jim Wright (D-Texas) became the first Speaker ever to be forced from office.
Wright, first elected to the House in 1954, came under scrutiny because of charges submitted by Gingrich that included intervening with regulators on behalf of contributors with interests in savings and loans, circumventing outside income limits in a book deal, improperly directing an aide to help write a book for him and accepting gifts from a business partner who allegedly benefited from federal appropriations backed by Wright.
In the spring of 1989, the House ethics committee charged the Speaker with violating 69 rules, and by mid-May it had become clear that censure was inevitable if he remained in office. On May 31, Wright announced he would step down as Speaker and resign from office.
The episode had significant political reverberations. It proved that the Congressional ethics process can provide a powerful political tool to a minority party willing to use it. The aggressive ethics attacks by a then-obscure backbencher helped rupture bipartisan comity and, indirectly, created the conditions for Gingrich himself to become Speaker — and be ousted for alleged ethical failings.
House Bank Scandal, 1991-1992
In 1990, then-Roll Call reporter Tim Burger alerted readers to troubling findings about the now-defunct House Members’ Bank. A General Accounting Office audit had shown that the facility had cashed hundreds of bad checks in a single year, putting the institution at risk for “material losses in the future.”
That initial GAO review turned up $200,000 worth of bad checks. House Sergeant-at-Arms Jack Russ, who ran the House Bank and had been treating Members’ overdrafts as salary advances, made promises to reform the system, which included no written procedures for check cashing. But he did little to actually improve matters.
By September 1991, GAO investigators handed a damning report to House leaders showing that the level of abuse was actually much worse. The audit agency had uncovered more than 4,000 bad checks written by House lawmakers. Two dozen Members had bounced checks worth more than $1,000.
While Russ blamed the excess of bounced checks on Members’ low salaries, the burgeoning scandal took on a life of its own.
Ultimately, 46 Members were discovered to have made 100-plus overdrafts — in effect, using the bank as their own petty cash fund. A report by the House ethics committee in April 1992 named 22 lawmakers who had “abused” their banking privileges, as well as dozens more who had overdrawn their accounts but were not deemed to have abused their privileges.
Voters were unforgiving. The scandal led to the retirement or defeat of more than 50 Members. “Nearly one-third of the House — the stewards of our tax dollars — were all bouncing checks worth more than $1,000, without even having to repay the debt,” said a spokeswoman for the Project on Government Oversight.
Worse, Reps. Albert Bustamante (D-Texas), Carl Christopher Perkins (D-Ky.) and Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio) and Del. Walter Fauntroy (D-D.C.) were convicted on House bank-related charges.
As a result of the scandal, the House Bank was shut down. Members and staffers can still do their banking inside the halls of Congress, but they are subject to the strict rules and procedures of the Wright Patman Congressional Federal Credit Union.
House Post Office Scandal, 1992-1994
In 1991, after a low-level clerk at the House Post Office absconded with cash to Puerto Rico, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia began to probe allegations that postal clerks on Capitol Hill had stolen money and distributed narcotics. That investigation soon led to an inquiry into whether Members of Congress were illegally trading postage stamps for cash.
Rep. Joseph Kolter (D-Pa.) was sentenced to six months in prison on July 31, 1996, after pleading guilty to conspiring to defraud taxpayers in a stamps-for-cash scheme. He was one of 12 people, including two lawmakers, netted in the scandal.
House Postmaster Robert Rota resigned in March 1992 and began cooperating with federal prosecutors. He fingered Kolter and the influential Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.). Kolter was defeated in 1992; he eventually admitted to trading nearly $10,000 in stamps for cash. He was also fined $20,000 and ordered to reimburse the government.
Rostenkowski was toppled by little-known Republican Michael Flanagan. Rostenkowski pleaded guilty to mail fraud in 1996 and was fined and sentenced to 17 months in jail.
Sen. Bob Packwood, 1992-1995
“I am accused of kissing women. … That is the charge. Not drugging, not robbing, but kissing,” a defiant Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) declared after the Senate Ethics Committee voted to expel the then-Finance Committee chairman.
In truth, the allegations of sexual misconduct against Packwood involved far more than a peck on the lips.
The story broke in a Washington Post report that detailed the stories of at least 10 women who had been recipients of unwanted sexual advances by the Oregon Senator. Several of them were his own staffers.
Packwood appeared to seal his own fate, however, when the racy pages of his personal diaries — recorded on tape and then transcribed by a typist — hit the media. Beyond the titillating details of his sexual escapades, Packwood’s painstaking journals also revealed a raw sense of the man behind the podium.
Consider the Aug. 3, 1990, entry, recounted by the Washington Monthly, in which he tells of a staff member who “handles all the things I don’t like. All the social welfare stuff, the education, the handicapped, the blind, all those things that I have so little patience for and all those programs that I think probably are a waste of money.”
Packwood’s indiscretions weren’t the first sex scandal to sweep Congress. But unlike the other sex cases, the Packwood case had lasting impact on the institution of Congress.
It “provided ammunition for the passage of the Congressional Accountability Act, which requires Members of Congress to comply with many workplace rules that private-sector employers must adhere to,” said Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch.
Packwood appeared before the Senate Ethics Committee to defend himself in June 1995, but the mounting public pressure became too much to bear. On Sept. 6, the ethics panel voted unanimously in favor of expelling Packwood. He resigned the next day.
Disproving the adage that there “are no second acts in American lives,” Packwood emerged from his ethical cloud to become a lobbyist. He named his firm Sunrise Research Corp.
Newt Gingrich, 1994-1997
Taking a page directly from Gingrich’s own playbook, Democrats showed little mercy when they learned of the Georgia Republican’s controversial political activities.
In 1994, shortly before he became Speaker, Gingrich was the target of an ethics complaint filed by his former Democratic challenger, ex-Rep. Ben Jones (Ga.).
Jones challenged Gingrich over the financing of a college course, “Renewing American Civilization,” that Gingrich was teaching via satellite. The class was intended to reach millions of Americans through a cable network, but Gingrich was using a tax-exempt political entity, GOPAC, to finance and administer the course.
For months, reporters clogged the Capitol’s basement corridors, where the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct had holed up. Unable to move past a contentious deadlock, the panel appointed outside counsel James Cole to sort out the matter.
The late Damon Chappie, a Roll Call investigative reporter who closely followed the investigation, reported that in the end Cole “documented an extensive pattern of activity designed to circumvent election law contribution limits through the use of a network of charities that had the primary goal of boosting Gingrich’s career.”
Gingrich’s lawyers, meanwhile, negotiated a legal settlement under which the Speaker would reimburse the ethics committee $300,000 for its investigation because he had failed to seek adequate legal advice on the tax-exempt organizations, and because he had supplied the committee with inaccurate and incomplete information (though he claimed that it was his lawyer’s fault).
The episode triggered a seven-year ethics truce between Republicans and Democrats that lasted until this year.
“That set the stage for the low point we are in, in terms of public trust that the House can police itself,” said Public Citizen’s Clemente.
The Gingrich episode demonstrated that Speakers could be toppled in relatively rapid succession — a point emphasized when Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), the longtime House Appropriations Chairman and presumptive Speaker after Gingrich’s resignation, abruptly stepped down from Congress in late 1998. It happened amid revelations of an extra-marital affair — a sensitive issue in the midst of the impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton.
Like Packwood, Livingston segued into a second act. He operates a lucrative lobbying practice.