Sunday, September 25, 2005

Disgrace Under Fire

[[S C A N D A L S]] * American history fails to provide an adequate predecessor to the trifecta of juicy political scandals that suddenly embroil the White House and the leaders of both houses of Congress. One must reach back all the way back to Ulysses S. Grant’s administration in the late 1860s and early ’70s to find a time when charges of corrupt conduct (the Crédit Mobilier scandal, the Sanborn Incident, the Whiskey Ring scandal, and the Belknap bribery scandal) were leveled against so many different branches of government in such quick succession. And even that doesn’t fully satisfy the criteria.

The longest-brewing of these outrages centers on House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), a hard-nosed disciplinarian (which explains his nickname, “The Hammer”), “born-again” Christian conservative, and former bug exterminator. He was rebuked last year by the House Ethics Committee after he swapped support for the congressional candidacy of a retiring Michigan House member’s son for that lawmaker’s vote in favor of the 2003 Medicare prescription drug benefit, and he later sullied himself badly during the Terri Schiavo fiasco, calling the removal of the brain-damaged woman’s feeding tube “an act of barbarism.” DeLay is currently the focus of an investigation based on allegations that his political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC), funnelled illegal corporate donations to Republican House candidates. And he’s been implicated in the Abramoff-Reed Indian Gambling Scandal, charged with receiving concert tickets and other illegal gifts, as well as the use a private skybox, from indicted Washington Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. (That’s the same Abramoff who was linked last week with the arrest of David H. Safavian, chief administrator at the federal procurement office in the White House Office of Management and Budget.)

Just two weeks ago, a couple of DeLay’s close political allies, former TRMPAC executive director John Colyandro and Jim Ellis, who heads the House leader’s Washington, D.C.-based Americans for a Republican Majority, were indicted on “felony charges of illegally using corporate money to elect Republicans in 2002,” as the Dallas Morning News reported. They “were charged with using $190,000 in corporate money to make campaign contributions to GOP candidates for the Texas House in what prosecutors say was an illegal money-laundering scheme.” More recently, a grand jury handed down indictments against several individual donors and three companies, including Tennessee-based Cracker Barrel, that had helped fund TRMPAC’s campaign with unlawful contributions. Although there’s been much speculation over whether DeLay’s indictment might be in the wind, the D.C. insider paper Roll Call says it’s unlikely, and Travis County, Texas, District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who’s been leading the campaign-finance probe, claims he can’t indict DeLay, because the congressman is “not in his jurisdiction.”

Meanwhile, at the other end of the U.S. Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) is being investigated by both the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission for possible insider trading. According to The Washington Post, Frist, a second-termer who’s been talked up as a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2008, “ordered his portfolio managers in June to sell his family’s shares in HCA Inc., the nation’s largest hospital chain,” which was founded in 1968 by Frist’s father and brother, together with a former owner of Kentucky Fried Chicken. “A month later, the stock’s price dropped 9 percent in a single day because of a warning from the company about weakening earnings. Stockholders are not permitted to trade stock based on inside information; whether Frist possessed any appears to be at the heart of the probes.” The majority leader’s spokespeople say that his HCA shares (valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars) were being held in a blind trust, that Frist did not discuss this stock sale with HCA execs, and that he “had no information about the company or its performance that was not available to the public when he directed the trustees to sell the HCA stock.” The senator contends that he sold his HCA stock only to “eliminate the appearance of a conflict of interest.” However, the Associated Press says it has documents showing Frist “was updated several times about his investments in blind trusts during 2002, the last time two weeks before he publicly denied any knowledge of what was in the accounts.” That denial took place in a January 2003 TV interview, during which Frist said, “Well, I think really for our viewers it should be understood that I put this into a blind trust. So as far as I know, I own no HCA stock.” HCA acknowledged late last week that federal prosecutors have subpoenaed its records in quest of information related to the developing Frist scandal.

In what must be considered an understatement, Nashville’s Tennesseean newspaper suggests that insider-trading allegations “might pose a political stumbling block for the Tennessee Republican as he prepares a possible presidential campaign.” (Can you say “Martha Stewart”?)

Finally, of course, the Bush administration is still being buffetted by the CIA leak scandal, aka Plamegate. The kernel of this affair is a July 2003 column in the Chicago Sun-Times by longtime and right-leaning D.C. journalist Robert Novak. In that column, Novak identified Valerie Plame as “an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction.” This was months after George W. Bush had delivered his 2003 State of the Union speech, in which he alleged that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was trying to procure uranium yellowcake from Niger that could be used in nuclear weapons; but it was only shortly after Plame’s husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, wrote in a New York Times op-ed column that he had been dispatched by the CIA in 2002 to investigate the uranium claim, but had turned up nothing, leading him to believe “that some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.” Novak has since acknowledged that he heard about Plame’s identity from “senior administration officials.” And Time magazine has revealed that deputy White House chief of staff Karl Rove spoke with reporters about Plame prior to Novak’s story appearing; Rove originally insisted he had discussed Plame only after the column’s publication. Wilson alleges that his wife was “outed” in partisan retaliation for his questioning administration statements regarding Hussein’s WMD resources. Besides Rove, other West Wing higher-ups said to have had a hand in revealing Plame’s name or the subsequent cover-up include vice-presidential chief of staff Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former White House press secretary Ari Fleisher, and John Bolton, who was recently installed (via a recess appointment) as Bush’s U.N. ambassador. (For a detailed timeline of Plamegate leaks and revelations, click here.)

This criminal investigation is now in the hands of Independent Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, who is expected to wrap up the case this fall “in a final flurry of negotiations and legal maneuvering,” Reuters reports. The White House is understandably concerned. In The Washington Post’s piece this weekend about Bush’s attempts to regain his “swagger,” reporters Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker write that the CIA leak investigation has “seemed to distract officials and left a general feeling of unease ... Aides were calling reporters to find out what was happening with Rove and the investigation. ‘Nobody knows what’s going to happen with the probe,’ one senior aide said.” Bush’s job approval ratings, already driven down by mounting Iraq war violence and casualties, rising gas prices, the White House’s stumbling response to Hurricane Katrina, and the exorbitant costs of disaster recovery could take yet another dive should Rove or anybody else of consequence in the administration be indicted by Fitzgerald. Even in the absence of criminal prosecutions, a confirmation of White House involvement in a leak that arguably endangered national security would likely sour American voters further on the prez.

Which, combined with the DeLay and Frist scandals, is of significant concern to Republicans. The U.S. midterm elections are scheduled for a little more than 13 months from now, and polls already find 52 percent of Americans saying that they intend to vote for the Democratic candidate for Congress in their district, while only 40 percent say they’ll pull the level for a Republican. “The overall problem the Republican Party has is it is increasingly looking like Tammany Hall,” Marshall Wittman, a one-time conservative activist who now works for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, tells the AP. “An odor of sleaziness is enveloping the Republicans and seeping into the administration.” As the Post puts it, the federal inquiries surrounding Bush, Frist, and DeLay “have handed Democrats a chance to broaden their long-stated claim that Republicans push ethical boundaries and focus on laws that help the rich.” This doesn’t guarantee widespread balance-of-power changes on Capitol Hill; Democrats still have more seats to defend in the Senate than the GOP must, and it might be a hard sell to portray every Republican office seeker next year as corrupted or corruptible.

Yet polls suggest growing public dissatisfaction with having all three branches of government under the control of a single political party. A similar level of displeasure filled the winds in 1994. That was the year Republicans, wielding their Contract with America, wrested control of both houses of Congress from Democrats for the first time since 1954.

FOLLOW-UP: “A Texas grand jury’s recent interest in conspiracy charges,” the Associated Press reports, “could lead to last-minute criminal indictments--possibly against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay--as it wraps up its investigation ... into DeLay’s state political organization, according to lawyers with knowledge of the case.” Read more.

ADDENDUM: Speaking of sleaze, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) this week releases its list of “the 13 most corrupt members of Congress.” The group says its goal is “to galvanize both the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct and the Senate Select Committee on Ethics into action. The ethics committees have lain largely dormant over the past years despite the often appalling conduct of their members.” CREW’s roster of the ethically challenged contains not only Republicans, but a couple of Democrats as well:
  • Senator Bill Frist (R-Tennessee)
  • Representative Roy Blunt (R-Missouri)
  • Senator Conrad Burns (R-Montana)
  • Representative Bob Ney R-Ohio)
  • Representative Tom Feeney (R-Florida)
  • Representative Richard W. Pombo (R-California)
  • Representative Maxine Waters (D-California)
  • Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania)
  • Representative Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-California)
  • Representative William J. Jefferson (D-Louisiana)
  • Representative Charles H. Taylor (R-North Carolina)
  • Representative Marilyn N. Musgrave (R-Colorado)
  • Representative Rick Renzi (R-Arizona)

CREW calls its report “Beyond DeLay: The 13 Most Corrupt Members of Congress,” to acknowledge the fact that it has already spoken out against the House leader’s multiple ethical lapses. The organization chose to focus its attention in this new report, however, on other members of the Senate and House “whose behavior merits scrutiny.”

READ MORE:Will Frist Survive?,” by Jason Leopold (The Huffington Post); “Frist’s Political Future Darkens Over Questions on Stock Sales,” by Laura Litvan and Otis Bilodeau (Bloomberg); “Why Frist’s Lies Harm Bush’s Supreme Court Plans,” by Steve Soto (The Left Coaster); “Abramoff Probe May Threaten Leading Republicans as It Expands,” by Jonathan D. Salant (Bloomberg); “Bring Back Warren Harding,” by Frank Rich (The New York Times); “This Week in Corruption,” by Ryan White (TPM Café); “Hard Bigotry of No Expectations” (The New York Times); “The Broken Contract,” by Michael Ignatieff (The New York Times Magazine).

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