Editorial: Scandals

Posted October 6, 2009 at 6:27pm

As columnist Michael Kinsley famously observed years ago, “a scandal isn’t what’s illegal — it’s what’s legal.— And two cases in point have surfaced recently that deserve anti-scandal action.

On Tuesday, Roll Call reported that the Congressional Black Caucus Political Education & Leadership Institute accepts — in fact, solicits — corporate sponsorship for its annual retreat in Tunica, Miss., despite House rules against Members’ accepting travel from private entities.

And last month, the Washington Post and the investigative nonprofit ProPublica published a reminder that corporate-fed personal slush funds are flourishing on Capitol Hill as leadership political action committees, which originally were designed as devices for Members to contribute to their colleagues’ campaigns.

The House ethics committee — formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct — is investigating 2007 and 2008 trips to the Caribbean taken by a handful of Congressional Black Caucus members organized by a nonprofit, the Carib News Foundation, but allegedly paid for by corporations.

However, the ethics committee gave clearance for CBC members to attend Tunica conferences in 2008 and 2009 even though the events were sponsored by corporations such as Toyota North America, Lockheed Martin, the International Longshoremen’s Association and the American Gaming Association.

What’s also concerning is that the chairman of the ethics subcommittee investigating the Caribbean trips, Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), was an attendee at Tunica this year.

In clearing the Tunica trips, the ethics committee seems to have relied on the technicality that corporate sponsors did not control the conference agenda — although their representatives certainly did attend, having bought access to CBC members.

We submit, Tunica is a fit subject for examination by the new Office of Congressional Ethics, and Butterfield should withdraw as chairman of the Carib inquiry.

The Federal Election Commission and the House and Senate ethics committees — at a minimum­ — need to crack down on Members’ use of leadership PACs to pay for personal travel and entertainment in as much as the PACs receive money from corporate PACs, lobbyists and wealthy individuals.

The Post/ProPublica piece focused on Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), whose leadership PAC has paid for golf outings all over the country, costing $250,000 over two years. It’s against Senate rules to accept gifts and travel, but he appears to have done just that, through his PAC.

And he’s not alone. As the Post reported, PACs have funded trips to Churchill Downs, Disney World and the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) used his PAC to pay for a portrait of himself. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) entertained at Las Vegas casinos, and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) paid for football and baseball tickets.

Yet, the FEC has no rules against politicians using their PACs for personal purposes. Senate rules don’t mention leadership PACs. House rules do, but they’ve never been enforced.

If all this doesn’t constitute scandal, we don’t know what does. It needs to stop.