The Equal-Opportunity Culture of Corruption House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had pledged that the Democratic-led 110th Congress would be "the most ethical." But Rep. William Jefferson's indictment on charges including bribery and money laundering shows once again that neither party is exempt from ethics woes.
NPR logo The Equal-Opportunity Culture of Corruption

The Equal-Opportunity Culture of Corruption

Congressman Bill Jefferson joins the "culture of corruption" club. hide caption

toggle caption

Mark Foley's extra-curricular activities helped end GOP control of Congress in 2006. hide caption

toggle caption

The Wyoming Republican senator, who died on Monday, will be succeeded by a fellow Republican. hide caption

toggle caption

Thirty-three years ago today, the L.A. Times reveals President Nixon to be an unindicted Watergate co-conspirator. hide caption

toggle caption

For the most part, it was Iraq that gave the Democrats majorities in the House and Senate in last year's midterm elections. But the war was not the only issue. There was also the sense that Republicans had lost sight of what they came to Washington to do. In the eyes of many disappointed party loyalists, the euphoria of the GOP's 1994 sweep deteriorated as Republican lawmakers began to acquire many of the bad habits of their vanquished Democratic opponents. That was especially true when it came to ethics, or lack of same.

And so we witnessed the scandal involving GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the indictments and/or convictions/embarrassments of several Republican members of Congress, notably Reps. Duke Cunningham (CA), Tom DeLay (TX), Bob Ney (OH) and Mark Foley (FL). In 2006, Democrats captured three of those four House seats (all but Cunningham's) — districts that they were not given a snowball's chance of winning when the campaign season began. Following the election, Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi pledged that the 110th – the one with the Democratic majority – would be the "most honest, the most open and the most ethical Congress in history."

Leave it to William Jefferson to spoil Pelosi's line.

Jefferson, a nine-term Democrat from New Orleans, has been under investigation for close to two years in a corruption probe that has already resulted in two convictions. Vernon Jackson, the founder of a telecommunications firm, and Brett Pfeffer, then a Jefferson staffer, both pleaded guilty last year to bribing the congressman. The FBI videotaped Jefferson receiving a briefcase containing $100,000 in cash from an informant. Not long after, $90,000 was found stashed away in Jefferson's freezer.

Throughout all of this, Jefferson maintained his innocence, and in fact, he had not been charged with anything. His opponent in the runoff did her best last year to make ethics the key issue in their election campaign, but Jefferson went on to win by 14 points. Still, House Democrats – perhaps worried that their "culture of corruption" charge against the GOP would be compromised – voted to remove Jefferson from the influential Ways and Means Committee (a move that didn't go over well with the Congressional Black Caucus). That's where the story stayed until now.

On Monday, the Justice Department announced a 16-count indictment against Jefferson, charging him with bribery, money laundering, obstruction of justice, conspiracy and racketeering. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.

Republicans, as to be expected, will try to gain whatever political capital they can from this. They certainly would love to throw Pelosi's words back at her. (Minority Leader John Boehner may offer a resolution calling for Jefferson's expulsion.) One thing is pretty certain, however: Louisiana's 2nd CD, the state's only black-majority district (Katrina notwithstanding), will not elect a GOP successor.

Actually, the real political fallout of this could be the elimination of the 2nd District altogether after the next round of redistricting. Louisiana may lose a seat after 2010, and the combination of a reduced population base and a (all-but-certain) new incumbent will make the district an easy target for those drawing the new map.

Jefferson's attorneys have insisted that they will appeal the sentence, and the congressman may offer the same claim of innocence this go around as well. But I'd fall off my chair if Jefferson were still in office going into the 2008 elections. There will be enormous pressure on him to resign. And that brings us, kids, to our list of House members of the past 30 years who have resigned because of ethics woes – and of members who won their seat in the special election that followed.

This list does not include those incumbents who were defeated for re-election, such as Ozzie Myers (D-PA) and John Jenrette (D-SC) of Abscam fame, or folks like Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL), etc. It's a tally of incumbents who threw in the towel.

1977: Richard Tonry (D-LA) – vote fraud, illegal campaign contributions.
Resigned: May 4, 1977.
Succeeded by: Robert Livingston (R) in a special election on Aug. 27, 1977

1980: Charles Diggs (D-MI) – convicted of mail fraud.
Diggs was convicted on Oct. 7, 1978, but he was overwhelmingly re-elected in November. Censured by the House in 1979.
Resigned: June 3, 1980.
Succeeded by: George Crockett (D) in the general election.

1980: Dan Flood (D-PA) – convicted on bribery charges.
Resigned: Jan. 31, 1980.
Succeeded by: Raphael Musto (D) in a special election on April 9, 1980.

1980: Ray Lederer (D-PA) – convicted on bribery charges (Abscam). Despite the scandal, he was re-elected with 55 percent of the vote — the only House member charged in the scandal to have survived his election that year.
Resigned: April 29, 1981.
Succeeded by: State Sen. Joseph Smith (D), who lost his bid for the Democratic nomination for the special election, ran as a Republican (with GOP leaders' blessings) and won the seat on July 21, 1981. Smith, however, caucused with the Democrats, as he said he would.

1981: Jon Hinson (R-MS) – arrested on charges of attempted oral sodomy in a House office building.
Resigned: April 13, 1981.
Succeeded by: Wayne Dowdy (D) in a special election on July 7, 1981.

1982: Fred Richmond (D-NY) – Pleaded guilty to tax evasion and possession of marijuana.
Resigned: Aug. 25, 1982. Succeeded by: Ed Towns (D), in a drastically redrawn district, in the general election.

1988: Mario Biaggi (D-NY) – convicted on obstruction of justice, extortion, bribery and tax evasion charges related to Wedtech scandal.
Resigned: Aug. 5, 1988, but his name stayed on the primary ballot.
Succeeded by: State Assemblyman Eliot Engel (D), who defeated Biaggi in the Democratic primary.

1989: Tony Coelho (D-CA) – questionable financial dealings.
Resigned: June 15, 1989.
Succeeded by: Gary Condit (D) in a special election on Sept. 12, 1989.

1989: Jim Wright (D-TX) – ethics violations.
Resigned: June 30, 1989.
Succeeded by: Pete Geren (D) in a special election on Sept. 12, 1989.

1989: Robert Garcia (D-NY) – convicted on bribery and extortion charges related to Wedtech scandal.
Resigned: Jan. 7, 1990.
Succeeded by: State Assemblyman Jose Serrano (D) in a special election on March 20, 1990.

1990: Donald "Buz" Lukens (R-OH) – convicted of having sex with a minor.
Resigned: Oct. 24, 1990.
Succeeded by: Prior to his resignation, Lukens had already been trounced in the May 1990 GOP primary by John Boehner, who won the seat in the general election.

1995: Mel Reynolds (D-IL) – convicted of sexual assault, criminal sexual abuse and obstruction of justice. Reynolds was first indicted on these charges in August of 1994, but he was re-elected that fall without opposition. He was convicted of the charges on Aug. 22, 1995.
Resigned: Oct. 1, 1995.
Succeeded by: Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) in a special election on Dec. 12, 1995.

1995: Walter Tucker III (D-CA) – convicted on extortion and tax evasion charges.
Resigned: Dec. 15, 1995.
Succeeded by: Juanita Millender-McDonald (D) in a special election on March 26, 1996.

2002: James Traficant (D-OH) – convicted on bribery charges.
Resigned: The House voted 420-1 to expel him on July 24, 2002. Earlier, Traficant said he would seek re-election as an independent.
Succeeded by: State Sen. Timothy Ryan won the Democratic primary in May, as well as the general election in November.

2005: Randy (Duke) Cunningham (R-CA) – convicted on bribery and tax evasion charges.
Resigned: Nov. 28, 2005.
Succeeded by: Former (and current) Rep. Brian Bilbray (R) in a special election on June 6, 2006.

2006: Tom DeLay (R-TX) – linked to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff (also under indictment in separate campaign-finance case in Texas).
Resigned: June 9, 2006.
Succeeded by: Former Rep. Nick Lampson (D) in the general election.

2006: Mark Foley (R-FL)– revealed to have sent sexually suggestive e-mails to teenage House pages.
Resigned: Sept. 29, 2006.
Succeeded by: Tim Mahoney (D) in the general election.

2006: Bob Ney (R-OH) – convicted on charges relating to his relationship with Abramoff.
Resigned: Nov. 3, 2006, though he had already announced he was not running for re-election.
Succeeded by: Zach Space (D) in the general election.

SUCCEEDING CRAIG THOMAS: Sen. Craig Thomas, a three-term Wyoming Republican, died Monday. He was 74 years old. Thomas was first diagnosed with leukemia in November, shortly after his landslide re-election (see Nov. 29, 2006, column). Wyoming law states that the governor (Democrat Dave Freudenthal) is required to name a successor of the same party as Thomas. As Tim Stubson of Casper, Wyo., informed us in the Jan. 18 column, "In the event a U.S. Senate seat is vacated, the state central committee of the senator's party is to select three candidates and forward those names to the governor for a final appointment. It is highly unlikely (read: impossible) that the Wyoming Republican Party would suggest a Democrat as one of its three selections and that a Democrat would fill Sen. Thomas' seat."

The GOP has 15 days from Thomas' death to submit the names to the governor, and then Freudenthal has five days to name the successor. According to Congressional Quarterly, the following Republicans are potential successors: Secretary of State Max Maxfield, former state Treasurer Cynthia Lummis, former state House Speaker Fred Parady, and Colin Simpson, the state House majority leader and son of former Sen. Alan Simpson.

Whoever succeeds Thomas will serve until next year, when the term of Wyoming's other senator, Republican Mike Enzi, is also up. Democrats reportedly would love Freudenthal to run for Thomas' Senate seat. Were he to run, he could find himself running against the person he appointed. Bob Beck, the news director at Wyoming Public Radio, says another potential Democratic candidate in '08 is Gary Trauner, who narrowly lost to Rep. Barbara Cubin (R) last year.

Wyoming is unusual in that the governor is instructed to name a Senate replacement of the same party of the departed senator. For example, Freudenthal couldn't do what Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (R) did in New York in 1968, picking a Republican, Charles Goodell, to succeed the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D). Or what Gov. Bob Casey (D) did in Pennsylvania in 1991, picking a Democrat, Harris Wofford, to succeed the late Sen. John Heinz (R). And that leads to this question:

Q: Since direct popular vote for U.S. senators began, has a governor of one party ever voluntarily chosen anyone from the other party to fill a Senate vacancy? And if such a thing happened, was there any political fallout? – Nicholas Ohh, London, England

A: I can think of two instances, and neither resulted in any political fallout. On March 9, 1960, Oregon Sen. Richard Neuberger (D) died in office. The governor at the time, Republican Mark Hatfield, named Hall Lusk, a state Supreme Court justice — and a Democrat — to fill the seat until the November elections. The widely respected Lusk, 76, was a caretaker appointment and had no plans to seek the seat. Lusk served in the Senate for eight months.

The second instance occurred after Michigan Sen. Philip Hart (D) died in late December of 1976; Republican Gov. William Milliken appointed Rep. Donald Riegle (D) to fill the vacancy. But all that did was advance Riegle's tenure by four days — he had already been elected to succeed the retiring Hart in November. The Senate was not in session when Riegle was appointed, and so ultimately, it made no difference.

Q: In Minnesota's 1996 Senate race, there were three candidates: incumbent Democrat Paul Wellstone, former senator Rudy Boschwitz (R), and independent (and future senator) Dean Barkley. Is there another situation where there has been three past/present/future senators all running against each other in the same race? – Judith Forrester, Sausalito, Calif.

A: What a wonderful question! The closest thing I could come up with is the 1956 Senate race in Idaho. In that contest, Democratic challenger Frank Church unseated GOP incumbent Herman Welker. Former Sen. Glen Taylor (D), who lost his seat in the 1950 primary, ran in '56 as a write-in candidate. But Taylor wasn't on the ballot.

MORE ON IOWA: Last week's column speculated on the wisdom of presidential candidates skipping the Iowa caucuses. Jerry Skurnik of New York City says that it reminds him "of the one candidate who I think should have but didn't: John Glenn. In 1984, Glenn was running second in the national polls to former VP Walter Mondale. Glenn competed in Iowa and finished with only about 3 percent of the vote and was soon out of the race. Mondale won Iowa easily with 49 percent, but Sen. Gary Hart (D-CO) got a boost in the media for finishing second – even though he only got 16 percent. Hart then became the choice of the anti-Mondale voters. My belief is that if Glenn had skipped Iowa, using the excuse that it bordered Mondale's home state of Minnesota, he and not Hart would have been declared by the media to be the only one who could stop Mondale... (He) probably would have won New Hampshire instead of Hart and might then have beaten Mondale for the nomination."

MORE ON SCHWEIKER: Last week's column also featured an interesting conversation about Ronald Reagan's decision in 1976 to name liberal Sen. Richard Schweiker (R-PA) as his choice for VP in advance of the national convention that year — a move intended to force President Ford's hand. That brought this response from Lou Cannon, the former Washington Post reporter and superb Reagan biographer who lives in California: "The only thing I'd add to your accurate comments about Schweiker is that his record – as Reagan once pointed out to me – became conservative and stayed conservative after Reagan designated him as his intended running mate. Check out Schweiker's American Conservative Union ratings in 1978 and '79 – he was at 79% and 88%, respectively, in those years. At any rate, even though Reagan soured on [campaign manager] John Sears, who came up with the idea of putting Schweiker on the ticket, he never changed his mind about Schweiker. It was Schweiker who changed."

WE'RE ON THE AIR: The "Political Junkie" segment can be heard on Talk of the Nation, NPR's call-in show, every Wednesday at 2:40 p.m. Remember, if this online column leaves you craving more, then you should tune in to TOTN each Wednesday for your fix! And if your local NPR station doesn't carry TOTN, you can still hear it on the Web. This week: debate reaction, the indictment of Congressman Jefferson, and the prison sentence for former Cheney Chief of Staff Lewis Libby.

IT'S ALL POLITICS: That's the name of our weekly podcast (find it here). It's hosted each week by NPR's Ron Elving and myself. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should tell you that in a recent FBI raid on my freezer, the agents found several TV dinners and frozen orange juice. A nice note, by the way, from Lawrence Jones of Conifer, Colo., who wants to let us know "how much I enjoy your podcast. It always amuses and informs me." No word on what's in Lawrence's freezer.

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state. *********

This Day in Political History: The Los Angeles Times reports that back in February, the Watergate grand jury unanimously voted to name President Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator for his role in the cover up (June 6, 1974).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: