Viewpoint: Scandals drenching Washington and Congress

“Senator: a person who makes laws in Washington when not doing time.” —Mark Twain

Never let it be said that Illinois politicians missed the gravy train in Washington. As the scandal involving big-time lobbyist Jack Abramoff reverberates through the capital, lawmakers are scrambling to avoid being splattered by the haymaker.

The politicians are scrambling away from Abramoff’s largesse so fast they are nearly running out of their mud-caked Guccis. Illinois’ crop is no exception.

Take that paragon of virtue, Rep. Dennis Hastert, for example. The ol’ boy won’t even say how much he got from Abramoff and how much, if any, he is giving back. How’s that for ethics? Some reports allege Hastert received more than $100,000.

Then there’s Sen. Dick Durbin. The Chicago Democrat is dumping $11,000 of Abramoff’s bucks, giving it to the American Indian Center of Chicago and the American Indian Health Service of Chicago. Oh yes, a Democrat. Abramoff was an equal opportunity briber.

Of course, our own Rep. Don Manzullo was right in there, too. He’s giving a mere $2,000 to the Mississippi band of the Choctaw Indians. The lesser clout level is evident in the amounts as we go down the scale.

Jerry Weller, another Illinois Republican, is donating a piddling $500 to an unspecified charity; but Lane Evans, another Democrat, is dumping $2,000, giving it to the Community Caring Conference.

These are some of the lesser lights affected when the green stuff hit the fan. Other more notable Congress types trying to avoid the appearance of impropriety include: House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who coughed up $8,500 for charity; dear old Tom DeLay, former House Majority Leader who spent much of his time under Abramoff’s thumb, surrendered $15,000; while Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., felt a sudden compassion for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian tribe in Michigan and gave them $2,000.

Robert Ehrlich Jr., Republican governor of Maryland, quickly dumped $16,000, while Hillary Clinton rid herself of $2,000. Elizabeth Dole gave up only half that amount, and John Sununu, R-N.H., dropped $3,000.

Native American charities continued to do very well as the congressional barn-yarders found these lobbyist dollars radioactive. Tim Johnson, South Dakota Democrat, gave $8,250 to Billy Mills and his Running Strong for American Indian Youth, while Barbara Mikulski, D-MD., donated $5,000 to the American Indian College Fund. John Kyl, R-Ariz., put $4,000 in the hands of three Indian tribes.

Jim McCrery, R-LA., enriched the Salvation Army by $35,000, and Hal Rodgers, R-KY., gave $32,000 to the UNITE Foundation. That’s only a few of the willing recipients of Abramoff’s cash who have suddenly had spasms of conscience.

It should be said that accepting money from a lobbyist is not a crime unless there is an agreement to perform some official act in return. Political damage, however, is something else, as all these trough huggers well know.

The Christian Science Monitor quoted Stanley Brand, a Washington defense attorney: “Careers usually end when the indictment is brought, whether [the accused] are cleared or not. Very few survive an election, once an indictment has been brought.” Brand advised the late Tip O’Neill in the 1978 ABSCAM bribery scandal that led to the conviction of five members of the House and one senator.

At least a dozen FBI offices are already involved in the investigation, according to the Monitor, and speculation is that as many as 60 members of Congress may be under scrutiny.

The No. 1 player to jump back when the waste product struck the rotary oscillator is George W. Bush. The White House has announced Bush is keeping all but $6,000 of the more than $100,000 donated by Abramoff to the Bush re-election campaign. The $6,000 came from Michigan’s Saginaw Chippewa Indian tribe. Bush claims the remainder is campaign donations and, therefore, not tainted.

Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, told the Monitor: “The line between a bribe and a legal contribution is very thin, but it is that line that keeps you out of jail. The critical element is whether there was an understanding or agreement to take specific action in return for the money. Up until now, I’ve said it will involve just a few members [of Congress], but if they’ve reached a plea agreement with Abramoff, it means he’s turned over people higher than him, and they must have some pretty strong evidence.”

That plea bargain agreement was reached last week when Abramoff pleaded guilty to three federal felonies and got ready to spill the beans on lawmakers with whom he dealt.

New York University political scientist Paul Light, quoted in the Monitor, said: “… you have six, 12, 20 members desperately trying to return money to Abramoff and another bunch wondering how they will look in an orange jump suit.”

Broad as the Abramoff scandal may become, it is not the only mega pain poised to affect Mr. Bush and his colleagues. Two committee chairmen in the U.S. House are in the crosshairs on this one.

It involves Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, Calif., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. This mess is linked to former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who was forced to resign after it became public he had taken more than $2 million in bribes from at least three defense contractors.

Cunningham and Hunter worked with two companies—ACDS Inc. of Poway, Calif., and Audre Inc. of Rancho Bernardo—to persuade the Pentagon to pay for switching printed documents to computer files, a project not wanted by the Pentagon.

A military contractor named Brent Wilkes, who worked for ACDS, was allegedly funneling money to Cunningham, according to The San Diego Union Tribune.

Congress turned loose of $190 million for the document conversion program. Wilkes had hired an ex-congressman and lobbyist named Bill Lowery. The newspaper said Lewis approved hundreds of millions of dollars in federal projects for Lowery’s clients.

As one writer put it: “These guys make street-walkers look like Puritans.” It’s just like the grand ol’ opera—it’s not over until Abramoff sings.

From the Jan. 11-17, 2006, issue

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