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Cases Lingering From Last Cycle Still Imperil Members of Congress

Posted November 5, 2007 at 6:13pm

In an attempt to gauge just how clouded these lawmakers’ political futures are, Roll Call recently interviewed national party strategists and political observers in the lawmakers’ home states, and ranked them accordingly.

This list includes only Members who are up for re-election in 2008, ignoring such lawmakers as Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), whose phone number appears on records provided by the “D.C. Madam,” and several who already are on their way to ethics-hastened retirement. It also excludes embattled Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) because he has committed to stepping down at the end of 2008, even though he has reversed — for now — his initial promise to resign before the end of his term.

All of the individuals on this list repeatedly have denied any wrongdoing.

Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.)

Jefferson was indicted on 16 corruption counts in June, including racketeering, money laundering and obstruction of justice, stemming from an ongoing federal investigation into his dealings with African businesses. The House ethics committee also launched a second investigative subcommittee to probe these allegations.

Risk factor: Medium-high. Anyone else with Jefferson’s baggage — especially the cash famously discovered in his freezer — would qualify for a “high” rating. But Jefferson has defied political gravity for so long that it seems foolish to predict when, or how, he may leave office.

“All political activity in the district is on hold pending Jefferson’s January trial,” said one political observer in New Orleans. “A conviction would likely bring a deep field of Democrats scrambling to take his place, possibly including New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. An acquittal would appear to justify Jefferson’s 2006 claim that he was unfairly targeted by prosecutors, and that would make him difficult to beat.”

Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.)

After countless media reports detailing ties to former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the FBI raided the home of Doolittle and his wife, Julie, a fundraising consultant. In addition to questions about the Congressman’s advocacy for Abramoff, eyebrows were raised about the almost $200,000 he paid his wife for fundraising services. Amid the controversy, Doolittle has temporarily vacated his seat on the influential House Appropriations Committee.

Risk factor: Medium-high. Of the five California House Members on this list, strategists in both parties agree that Doolittle is the one most at risk. One California Republican goes so far as to call him “a dead man walking.”

If he runs again — and that’s no foregone conclusion — Doolittle will face energetic Democratic opposition despite the district’s strong Republican lean. Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Charlie Brown (D), who held Doolittle to 49 percent last year, is running again, and at least two Republicans already are challenging the incumbent in the primary. Other political heavyweights could join the GOP field.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska)

According to various media reports, Young is a target of a federal criminal probe of VECO, an Alaska oil-services company that was the lawmaker’s single largest contributor. Among other things, top VECO officials have acknowledged reimbursing employees with corporate funds for making campaign contributions, which is illegal.

Risk factor: Medium-high. For more than three decades, Young coasted to easy victories. No longer. Already, former state House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz (D) has announced that he’ll challenge Young next year, joining former Alaska Democratic Party Chairman Jake Metcalfe and 2006 nominee Diane Benson in the race.

Young also is facing a rare primary challenge, and his vulnerability there, according to Anchorage-based pollster Ivan Moore, “pretty much depends on the extent to which his legal troubles improve or worsen between now and next August.”

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska)

Stevens, a legendary figure in Alaska, is facing legal problems at least as serious as Young’s. FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents raided Stevens’ home in July as part of the VECO corruption probe, an investigation that also has ensnared his son Ben, a former state Senator. Meanwhile, federal investigators are looking into the propriety of certain Stevens earmarks.

Risk factor: Medium-high. Stevens has said he’s running again in 2008, but his vulnerability has soared. One poll had popular Gov. Sarah Palin (R) leading Stevens by 23 points in a hypothetical primary matchup, though she’s unlikely to run. The top Democratic prospect is Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich. He would be a strong opponent, but he’s keeping his powder dry for now.

“Alaskans are fundamentally conflicted about Stevens — he really did build Alaska and is responsible for a major portion of our operating and capital monies,” said Rebecca Braun, the publisher and editor of Alaska Budget Report. “Others feel that enough is enough — that he did a lot for Alaska but that corruption and the arrogance of power have gotten the best of him.”

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.)

The Justice Department has been looking into the powerful House Appropriations ranking member and his relationships with lobbyists, including former Rep. Bill Lowery (R-Calif.), who represented clients in Lewis’ district. Most recently, an aide on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense reportedly was subpoenaed by a Los Angeles grand jury that is looking at the case.

Risk factor: Medium-low. While Democratic attorney Tim Prince is talking about a run, the district is heavily Republican, and if the 15-term incumbent’s legal situation deteriorates, there’s still time for a stampede of Republicans to file for the seat. Lewis’ main flak right now comes from conservative bloggers, who are exercised as much about his record on spending as about his legal woes. But his eventual vulnerability hinges on what happens with the grand jury.

Rep. Gary Miller (R-Calif.)

The FBI reportedly has been probing several of Miller’s real estate dealings with a company that has benefited from some of Miller’s transportation bill earmarks and whose employees have been major donors to the Congressman.

Risk factor: Medium-low. The district is solidly Republican, no top-tier challengers have emerged in either party and “media-wise, the story has gone underground a bit” in recent months, a California Republican source said.

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.)

News reports have questioned whether Calvert steered federal money toward real estate in which he had a financial stake. The FBI pulled some of his financial records, but there is little indication of whether there is a formal investigation under way and, if so, what it focuses on. Boosting Calvert’s defense is that the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct ruled in May that one earmark the Congressman had requested — to build a commuter transit center near properties he owns — would not pose ethical concerns, though some watchdogs criticized the panel’s decision as overly generous to Calvert.

Risk factor: Medium-low. As with Miller, Calvert’s situation hasn’t received much media attention at home in recent months, and unlike the case with Lewis, little or no conservative grass-roots opposition has formed. Local broadcaster Louis Vandenberg and teachers union official Bill Hedrick are poised to duke it out in the Democratic primary, but the district is reliably Republican, and it’s not clear that Calvert is fundamentally vulnerable yet.

Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.)

Feeney took part in a Jack Abramoff- sponsored golf trip in 2003. The Congressman has mounted an aggressive defense, saying that the House ethics committee has closed its file on the matter without finding a rules violation. But Abramoff has reportedly been cooperating with prosecutors, and fresh information could eventually make problems for Feeney.

Risk factor: Medium-low. In 2006, Feeney easily bested a weak Democrat when the Abramoff controversy was fresher in the public’s mind, and during an awful cycle for Republicans. Moreover, the district was originally drawn for Feeney’s benefit, he has reported strong fundraising numbers this year and gets good marks for constituent service. But last month, a credible Democrat — former state Rep. Suzanne Kosmas — entered the race. She’ll be an underdog, but she should give Feeney a run for his money.

Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.)

Late in the 2006 campaign, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that five former aides and one current staffer had alleged that Murphy used taxpayer-funded staff and resources to do political work. Murphy promised to seek a House ethics committee probe, though no ruling has yet been made public by the committee.

Risk factor: Medium-low. Ranking Murphy on this scale is misleading, because in some ways he’s one of the most likely Members on this list to lose his seat in 2008. But that goes way beyond ethics concerns: After ousting then-Rep. Melissa Hart (R-Pa.) and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) in 2006, Democrats in western Pennsylvania can freely train their resources on Murphy, whom they view as vulnerable because of broader political trends in the region. Consultant Beth Hafer (D), the daughter of well-known Republican-turned-Democrat Barbara Hafer, is in the race.

Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.)

Wilson acknowledges that shortly before the 2006 election, she called David Iglesias — one of the U.S. attorneys whose subsequent firing eventually led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales — to inquire about a pending investigation involving a Democratic state Senator. Wilson has insisted she did nothing wrong.

Risk factor: Medium-low. Wilson is now running for the Senate seat being relinquished by Republican Pete Domenici (who, as it happens, was also accused of making a possibly improper call to Iglesias). The Senate race will be highly competitive, and she may not end up winning, but it’s not likely that ethics will be the race’s deciding issue.

Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.)

An investigative report released last year by a conservative group and referred to the Justice Department accused Mollohan of underreporting financial assets and steering federal earmarks to entities he founded or controlled. In the wake of the allegations, Mollohan stepped down as the House ethics committee’s ranking member.

Risk factor: Medium-low. In 2006, for the first time in memory, Mollohan was aggressively targeted by the GOP, with ethics the main weapon against him. But state Del. Chris Wakim (R), initially highly touted, was thrown off-stride for allegedly inflating his military résumé, and Mollohan ended up cruising to a 13th term with 64 percent of the vote.