Signs of a Wider, Deeper Scandal in Congress

Rep. Robert Ney

hide captionRep. Robert Ney (R-OH) stepped down this week as chairman of the House Administration Committee. This photo is from an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press in 2001.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The business and legislative dealings of many members of Congress are under increased scrutiny these days — and it's not just former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and others connected to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Those high-profile relationships between big-money lobbyists and congressional leaders have trained public hawkeyes on other instances of quid pro quo — or the appearance thereof.

One such case involves Republican Jerry Lewis, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. An extensive investigation by Copley News Service recently traced the connections between Lewis and lobbyist Bill Lowery, a former Republican member of the House and a close friend of Lewis. In the years since he left Congress in 1993, Lowery has become a highly successful lobbyist, specializing in winning "earmarks" in congressional spending bills.

These earmarks direct some of the funds that are being appropriated to specific projects, including roads and bridges and buildings and even swimming pools. Local communities hire lobbyists to help them win earmarks for their projects. And while most of the projects are micro-specks in the larger landscape of federal spending, they mean a lot to the beneficiaries and to the lobbyists like Lowery who help to secure them. The lobbyists then find ways to express their thanks, often by shouldering campaign fundraising chores — as Lowery has done for Lewis.

The Copley News Service stories found Lowery and Lewis working so closely together that their staffs were intertwined. That was followed by a story in USA Today pointing to a 2003 sequence in which Lewis raised more than $100,000 from a defense contractor, then voted to protect the contractor's interests in a spending bill.

In another case, and one that proves Republicans have no monopoly on ethics problems, a former top aide to Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) has pleaded guilty to charges and is cooperating with prosecutors. Jefferson's business dealings with a telecommunications firm have been under scrutiny for some time. The Democratic member of the Ways and Means Committee allegedly agreed to invest in the company and use his clout to bring in business, including by helping to open the Nigerian market to the firm's technology. Jefferson is the subject of a federal investigation into the matter, and his homes in New Orleans and Washington, D.C., have been searched.

In more than one case, members of Congress are alleged to have used the Congressional Record to help their clients. The Record is a daily transcript of the words and actions of the House of Representatives, and a historical document of particular weight. Republican Richard Pombo of California inserted sensitive information about an investigation of Texas millionaire Charles Hurwitz into the Congressional Record, allegedly to protect Hurwitz's Pacific Lumber Company and its interests.

Hurwitz, long at war with anti-logging activists, has been a major contributor to the political action committees run by former leader DeLay (who helped vault Pombo over several more senior Republicans, installing him as chairman of the House Resources Committee). One of Pombo's main projects in that job has been to rewrite the Endangered Species Act in a way that would aid companies like Pacific Lumber, environmental activists say, at the expense of threatened species. So Pombo and others could get caught in investigators' net. Pombo received donations from Abramoff and his clients, and says he's now given an equal amount to charity.

One who has already paid a price, while still protesting his innocence, is Republican Bob Ney of Ohio, who stepped down this week as chairman of the House Administration Committee (the so-called "mayor of Capitol Hill"). Ney is alleged to have inserted language into the Congressional Record that helped Abramoff buy a fleet of cruise ships. Ney's problems are even greater — he is identified as "Representative No. 1" in the charges against Abramoff, and is accused of accepting gifts and travel in return for legislative favors.

And then there are the wives. California Republican John Doolittle is wrapped up in the Abramoff affair, not only because he worked closely with the lobbyist and took donations from him, but because Abramoff's lobbying firm employed Doolittle's wife (as well as DeLay's).

The snowball effect has begun. All kinds of relationships members have with lobbyists are under pressure now in ways they have not been since the Republicans seized control of Congress in 1994. Back then, after 40 years of Democratic dominance in the House, one of the GOP's big issues was integrity in office. After a dozen years in power, they find themselves defending their own record on the same issue.

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