Image of Corruption Taints Both Political Parties

With folks like Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff in the headlines, Democrats have been highlighting Republican Party corruption troubles. But polls show that many voters see both parties as equally at fault on ethics violations.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

The push for lobbying reform in Congress comes after a series of high profile ethical allegations against top Republicans. California's Randy Duke Cunningham was forced to resign his seat when he was convicted of taking bribes in return for pushing big money defense contracts.

Before he decided to resign his seat, former House majority leader Tom DeLay was indicted in a Texas case, and a Justice Department probe is investigating connections between his office and convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And there are at least a dozen other members of Congress wrapped up in the Abramoff scandal, or with questionable ties to lobby shops. For their part, Democrats are calling this a culture of corruption and are running their campaigns on that theme.

But as NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports, Democrats have problems of their own, and voters may see both parties at fault.

ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:

Do you have a quick second? I'm a reporter with NPR. And do you think there's corruption in Congress?

Ms. CLAIR TEASLEY: Yes.

Mr. LEO WILLIAMS: There's always shady dealings. You know, this guy's trying to wash that guy's hands.

SEABROOK: In general, do you feel that one party is worse than the other?

Mr. LEE MCKILLIP: No. The one in power is always the one that gets the criticism.

Ms. LES FERKLAND: I think there's corruption on both sides. I think it's no more one than the other. I think both are equally as guilty of corruption.

SEABROOK: what do you think should be done about it?

Ms. FERKLAND: I think we need to clean house. To put it bluntly.

Mr. KERRY COCKLAND: These people, they don't themselves. And sometimes we bingo when we elect certain officials, and sometimes they need a little bit more time to cook, you know, so to speak.

SEABROOK: That's Clair Teasley, of Virginia; Leo Williams of Alabama; Lee McKillip and Les Ferkland of Georgia, and Kerry Cockland of Mississippi.

These tourists, strolling along the terraces of the U.S. Capitol building, point out one of the Democrats' big problems right now: convincing voters that the so-called culture of corruption is a Republican thing. And maybe this is why it's so hard. There's a growing list of ethics allegations against Democrats in Congress.

Senate minority leader Harry Reid, Michigan senator Debbie Stabenow and others took campaign contributions from Indian tribes that were associated with Jack Abramoff. Just yesterday, a tech company executive pleaded guilty to paying more than $400,000 in bribes to Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson and his wife, and Michigan's John Conyers, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee has long been accused by former staffers of forcing them to baby-sit his children and work on his political campaigns during taxpayer funded office hours.

But by far the most serious allegations are currently against the man who, until two weeks ago, was the top Democrat on the House Ethics Committee, Alan Mollohan of West Virginia. He's accused of steering federal money, up to $250 million worth, to his own nonprofit organizations. He also failed to list real estate deals on his financial disclosure forms, deals that show Mollohan went from having a net worth of about $575,000 to between $6-24 million in just four short years.

So what does House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi say about all these ethical questions within her own party?

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): If any Democrats have behavior that has ethical or legal questions about it, they have to answer for it, and they are on their own. There is nothing in the Democratic Party that says we will protect you if there's an ethical question.

SEABROOK: You recently held a fundraiser for Mr. Mollohan in DNC headquarters. Is that not similar to the Republicans ignoring Tom DeLay's ethical questions for years?

Rep. PELOSI: No. No, no. I was proud to attend the fundraiser for Mr. Mollohan. I work hard in any way he wants me to, to make sure he is reelected to the Congress. The moment the Republicans targeted him because he has been effective as a ranking member on the ethics committee, Mr. Mollohan then stepped aside.

SEABROOK: Pelosi says while there may be a few problems within her party, it's nothing like the racket Republicans were running out of Tom DeLay's office. And because Republicans can't shake the ethics taint, Pelosi says, they're trying to spread it around. Melanie Sloan, of Congressional watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington says yes and no.

Ms. MELANIE SLOAN (Executive Director, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington): I do think the Democrats are being a little disingenuous about this when they want to say it's so terrible what DeLay did, but we're going to give Jefferson a pass, so I don't think that's okay. But on the other hand, if you have to ask me, you know, where is the majority of the corruption, it's by far on the Republican side of the aisle.

SEABROOK: And Sloan says, there's a really good reason for that. Maybe the Democrats would abuse their power, she says, if they had any, but they don't.

Ms. SLOAN: They're in the minority. They can't deliver anything. So you would have to be foolish to pay off a Democrat right now. You want to pay off the people who can deliver, and that's the Republicans.

SEABROOK: Even so, Democrats have a long, hot summer of political work ahead of them if they're to convince voters of that.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

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MONTAGNE: And if you wondering how your state will play out in November, get a preview of key races at our website, npr.org.

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