A Year of Ethics Lapses in Congress

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Fallout from lobbyist Jack Abramoff's guilty plea and failures to address former Rep. Mark Foley's behavior with congressional pages drove more criticism of Congress in 2006.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Andréa Seabrook.

This week, Democrats take control of Capitol Hill for the first time in 12 years. In a few minutes, we'll talk to the woman in charge of ethics and rules changes in the new Congress. But first, let's take a moment to remember some of the scandals and ethical lapses that helped shape the political climate of 2006.

NPR's Peter Overby has this wrap-up of the year in dishonor.

PETER OVERBY: If you took all of the House members and all of the scandals this past year, you'd have enough for a basketball game, with a few guys warming the bench too. 2006 was only four days old when Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher called a press conference. Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff had cut a plea deal with the government:

Ms. ALICE FISHER (Assistant Attorney General): Abramoff has agreed to cooperate in the ongoing public corruption probe led by the Department of Justice.

OVERBY: Waves of panic rippled across Capitol Hill. Abramoff had a wide network among Republicans, and he spread campaign money and gifts freely. How many lawmakers could he bring down? Nobody had an answer, but Democrats saw a potential campaign issue. Here's Nancy Pelosi, then the minority leader even before Abramoff pleaded.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): I will continue to be critical of the Republicans as long as they operate in a culture of corruption and cronyism.

OVERBY: After Abramoff came a slow cavalcade of lobbyists pleading guilty. A lobby firm close to both Abramoff and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay simply closed down. The stain spread into the capital.

Representative TOM DELAY (Republican, Texas): I yield back the floor of our beloved House. And I exit, as always, stage right.

OVERBY: DeLay resigned in June. He had been the driving force in the House leadership. He had also worked, golfed, even traveled with Abramoff. DeLay also has to deal with state felony charges; those stem from his political money network in Texas.

Ten days after DeLay's departure, it was the Democrats who faced an ethics problem. They voted William Jefferson of Louisiana off the Ways and Means Committee, one of the most powerful committees in the House. Jefferson was outraged.

Representative WILLIAM JEFFERSON (Democrat, Louisiana): This has never happened before, and the first time it's happening it's happening to an African American.

OVERBY: Two people have pleaded in a scheme to bribe Jefferson. He has not been charged and voters later re-elected him.

Over the summer, the congressional panic faded away. Republicans leaders dropped proposed ethics reforms; Democrats dropped the culture of corruption slogan. Then came a new scandal, legislative earmarks, lawmakers writing special provisions to finance pet projects back home. Republicans allowed literally thousands of them.

Randy Duke Cunningham of California had gone to prison in March for earmarking intelligence spending in exchange for bribes. He had entered his pleas late in 2005.

Representative RANDY DUKE CUNNINGHAM (Republican, California): In my life, I have had great joy and great sorrow. And now I know great shame.

OVERBY: This year, at least two members of the House Appropriations Committee came under scrutiny for earmarks. West Virginia Democrat Alan Mollohan allegedly earmarked funds for a local non-profit while making real estate investments with its chief. And the outgoing committee chair, California Congressman Jerry Lewis, remains under investigation for his ties to friends and former staffers who became earmark lobbyists. Both Mollohan and Lewis won easy re-elections.

Still, the accumulating scandals were adding an odor of corruption to all the other issues the congressional Republicans had to address in the mid-term elections. In September, the Abramoff prosecutors bagged their first member of Congress. Bob Ney of Ohio pleaded guilty. He admitted helping Abramoff's clients while gathering an array of gifts, including a golf trip to Scotland. Again, Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher.

Ms. FISHER: Congressman Ney and his co-conspirators engaged in a long-term pattern to defraud the public of the unbiased and honest services of an elected official.

OVERBY: Ney quit, his seat went Democratic. In California, Resources Committee chair Richard Pombo had taken campaign money from Abramoff's network and worked to help Abramoff's clients.

Representative RICHARD POMBO (Republican, California): I don't believe that there is a so-called culture of corruption.

OVERBY: Pombo lost. So did Montana Senator Conrad Burns. He'd gotten more Abramoff-generated campaign money than anyone else in the Senate.

Representative CONRAD BURNS (Republican, Montana): Baseless allegations drummed up in a negative campaign that started almost a year and a half ago.

OVERBY: And in an unrelated scandal, the FBI investigated Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania. He allegedly cut deals involving his daughter's lobby firm. Weldon said the story was leaked so close to Election Day, he couldn't tell voters his side of it.

Representative CURT WELDON (Republican, Pennsylvania): You have to rely on their support for me in the past, and their knowledge that I would not do anything to betray their trust. It's very difficult, believe me.

OVERBY: Too difficult, as it turned out. Weldon lost. But all of those scandals paled compared to the news about Florida Congressman Mark Foley. He resigned from Congress on the day that House members were heading home to campaign. Websites had begun posting text message sex chats between Foley and young men he'd met when they served as House pages. It also turned out that he'd been hanging around with pages his entire 12 years in Congress.

Republican leaders blamed each other for not catching it. House GOP conference chair Deborah Pryce almost lost in Ohio, partly because she was a good friend of Foley's. There were calls for Speaker Dennis Hastert to step down. Hastert said Foley had duped everyone close to him.

Representative DENNIS HASTERT (Republican, Illinois): And he deceived me too.

OVERBY: The House Ethics Committee took on the allegation to the leadership cover-up. The report came out after Election Day; harsh judgments, several recommendations, no punishment. The Foley case wasn't about money and bribes, unlike the others, but it brought it all home for voters.

Representative CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (Republican, Connecticut): I happen to believe we're losing our moral authority to lead this place.

OVERBY: Not a Democrat, but Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays sounding prescient last April.

Peter Overby. NPR News, Washington.

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