Corruption plagues the Hill, but don't expect much reform
It's been hard to keep up with the scandal news on Capitol Hill. Last week, a former aide to Rep. Bob Ney who later went to work with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiring to illegally influence Ney. A corporate executive pleaded guilty to bribing Rep. William Jefferson. And sources say a bribery investigation that's already ensnared Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham might well go much further.
The public's opinion of Congress is plummeting, but the bad news doesn't seem to be creating much urgency on Capitol Hill. Lobby-reform efforts that were launched with fanfare have lost momentum. Government watchdogs say what's left of the reform bills amounts to window dressing. "Lawmakers in Congress," says Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a watchdog group, "are operating in a complete isolation chamber."
The most infamous probe surrounds former lobbyist Abramoff. Last week Neil Volz, the former aide to Representative Ney, an Ohio Republican, pleaded guilty to conspiring with Abramoff and two former aides of Rep. Tom DeLay to engage in a fraud scheme by providing concert tickets, travel, and meals to influence Ney and his staff. Abramoff and three of his other former associates have already pleaded guilty to corruption-related charges. Ney has met with prosecutors for months but maintains his innocence.
The bribery case involving Cunningham may eclipse the Abramoff scandal if it gets any juicier. In March, Cunningham was sentenced to more than eight years in prison after he admitted taking $2.4 million in bribes. The FBI is scrutinizing whether contractors entertained Cunningham--and perhaps other members of Congress--at Washington hotels with poker games or prostitutes in exchange for help in getting defense contracts. Last Friday, FBI agents raided the home of Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, who had just stepped down from a senior CIA post amid allegations of improper ties to a defense contractor named as a coconspirator in the case against Cunningham. Sources said the bureau is also investigating the possibility that members of Congress were "steering"--influencing contractors to hire a member's friends, family, or staff, or soliciting campaign contributions from them, in exchange for placing special benefits, or "earmarks," in legislation. "The potential for [earmarks] being abused is great," says a federal law enforcement official. Sources said one of the members being examined is House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis, a California Republican. Lewis said in a statement that he "insisted on the highest standards of integrity"; he said he had "never" told anyone he must be represented by a specific lobbyist or told anyone that he would receive favors in exchange for contributions.
Democrats accuse Republicans of a "culture of corruption," but Dems have their own problems. Jefferson is under investigation for allegedly accepting bribes in exchange for promoting a U.S. company, iGate, in Nigeria. The FBI raided his house in New Orleans last year and found $90,000 cash in the freezer. An executive of iGate pleaded guilty last week to bribing Jefferson, who hasn't been charged and denies any wrongdoing. And Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia stepped down as the ranking Democrat on the House ethics committee after it was revealed he directed millions in federal grants to groups set up by him and staffed by his friends. Those friends, in turn, contributed to his campaigns. Mollohan says he was merely trying to help his district.
Checks and bans. According to a CBS News/New York Times poll taken earlier this month, only 23 percent of adults nationwide approve of the way Congress is handling its job. The numbers haven't been this low since 1994, right before Republicans took over Congress. House Speaker Dennis Hastert pledged in January to overhaul the lobbying rules, including banning privately funded trips. A Senate bill passed in March banned gifts and meals for members paid by lobbyists, but last week's bill approved by the House focused only on lobbying disclosure. Both bills did impose some checks on earmarks, but neither bill bolstered enforcement of ethics rules. "Whatever new rules they have, it doesn't matter if you're not going to enforce them," says Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Congressional negotiators are expected to hammer out the differences between the two bills in conference committee later this month.
Disappointed reformers say what's likely to emerge will result in business as usual. What would it take to get Congress to act more forcefully? "More indictments, probably," says Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, "and people losing elections." Voters will have their say in November.
With Chitra Ragavan
This story appears in the May 22, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.