Congressional Earmarks, Contributions Scrutinized When the House Ethics Committee dropped charges against seven members of the Appropriations Committee last week, it signaled that lawmakers can keep on directing that federal dollars be spent with contractors who give them campaign contributions. But it looks a lot like condoning practices that the committee rejected just a few years ago.
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Congressional Earmarks, Contributions Scrutinized

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Congressional Earmarks, Contributions Scrutinized

Congressional Earmarks, Contributions Scrutinized

Congressional Earmarks, Contributions Scrutinized

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When the House Ethics Committee dropped charges against seven members of the Appropriations Committee last week, it signaled that lawmakers can keep on directing that federal dollars be spent with contractors who give them campaign contributions. But it looks a lot like condoning practices that the committee rejected just a few years ago.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. The other day, members of the House of Representatives cleared their colleagues of wrongdoing. Seven lawmakers alleged steered federal contracts to big campaign contributors. The House Ethics Committee no doubt relieved many lawmakers by finding no improper conduct. With ruling, the committee avoided any criticism of the way Congress raises money while making laws. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: It may not surprise that the Ethics Committee exonerated a dead man. Democrat John Murtha was the model of the congressional earmarker, targeting federal tax dollars for specific contractors as they steered campaign dollars his way. He died last month. But the panel also cleared Democrat Pete Visclosky of the Appropriations Committee. Visclosky's campaigns rely on contributions from one lobby firm and its earmarked clients.

Democrat Zoe Lofgren chairs the Ethics Committee. She said none of the seven lawmakers violated House rules.

Representative ZOE LOFGREN (Democrat, California; Chairwoman, House Ethics Committee): There was a complete separation between the fundraising activities and the legislative activities on the part of these members.

OVERBY: But another congressional organization also investigated Visclosky: the Office of Congressional Ethics, or OCE. It even asked the Ethics Committee to dig deeper. OCE found evidence that in early 2008, Visclosky's office was inviting contractors to apply for new earmarks, while his campaign was inviting them to a fundraising dinner. OCE spokesman Jon Steinman sums up the report's findings.

Mr. JON STEINMAN (Spokesman, Office of Congressional Ethics): The timing of the fundraiser he held was one week before he took official action on behalf of the donors. The attendees at the fundraiser were limited to defense contractors with pending earmark requests before the representatives. And Visclosky's chief of staff and appropriations director attended the fundraiser.

OVERBY: Those three elements are significant - the timing, the invitees and the staffers - the same three elements that got Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay in trouble in 2004. DeLay held a fundraiser shortly before he began negotiating a big energy bill. He invited a few energy company officials to come and give money, and he brought along some key staffers.

The Ethics Committee rebuked DeLay. It cited the timing, the invitees and the staffers. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, then the minority leader, told NPR the Republicans needed to punish DeLay.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the House): But it's up to them. And they're painted with the same brush as Tom DeLay if they think that what he did is OK.

OVERBY: Still, this apparent relaxation of the guidelines isn't a partisan issue. House Ethics has five Democrats and five Republicans. But consider this: earmarking and fundraising are annual routines for Visclosky and for scores of other House members, while the DeLay investigation involved just one fundraiser and one piece of legislation.

Mr. ROBERT KELNER (Ethics Attorney): The DeLay case was an outlier.

OVERBY: Robert Kelner is an ethics lawyer in Washington. He said the DeLay case had a lot to do with attitudes toward DeLay himself, and it's not precedent for today.

Mr. COUNTER: Had the Ethics Committee come out a different way here, the implications would have been very, very broad for the way that virtually all members of Congress conduct themselves.

OVERBY: But Meredith McGehee, a critic of Congress's ethical standards, said House Ethics blew it.

Ms. MEREDITH MCGEHEE (Campaign Legal Center): This kind of interplay between earmarks and contributions is a fairly tawdry practice that did not withstand public scrutiny. And they don't seem to understand that. They seem to be more interested in protecting members.

OVERBY: We couldn't reach Visclosky's lawyer for comment. The Justice Department has subpoenaed the congressman's records. So, someday, prosecutors might override his clean bill from the committee, or the committee's exoneration might thwart a prosecutor's case to a jury.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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