"Dedicated to exposing the lies and impeachable offenses of George W. Bush"

GOP scandals register with voters
FortWayne.com/AP Wire
DONNA CASSATA, Associated Press
December 9, 2005

WASHINGTON - When Republicans seized power in Congress a decade ago, they pledged to sweep out the stench of scandal and restore bonds of trust with the people. Now, the people may be wondering whether the new bosses are the same as the old bosses, or possibly more corrupt.

A House Republican leader has been indicted for money laundering. The Senate GOP leader is under investigation for a financially well-timed stock sale. The probe of a lobbyist threatens to ensnare more than half a dozen members of Congress of both parties and the Bush administration.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Politicians work under an elaborate set of ethical rules, toughened in several waves of change. The public was given reason to expect a tempering, at least, of the abuses of the past - Abscam, Keating Five, Koreagate, high crimes and misdemeanors.

Instead, the climate for wrongdoing has become, if anything, more combustible.

Among the reasons are the colossal amounts of lobbying money in play; the insatiable cash requirement of campaigning; and, as has been seen before regardless of party, the entrenchment of a congressional majority that comes to feel it's immune to the rules.

"It's very dangerous to a democratic society to have a system in which money talks to the extent of American politics," said former Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich.

The steady drumbeat of scandal has registered with Americans. An Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that 88 percent of those surveyed said corruption is a serious problem and 67 percent said a moderate number to a lot of public officials are involved.

Democrats were considered more ethical by 36 percent, while 33 percent cited Republicans - a difference within the poll's margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Some 40 percent of women said Democrats were more ethical than Republicans, while 32 percent of men offered a similar view.

"Everything seems to be corrupted," said Sylvia Kind, a dietitian from Akron, Ohio, who participated in the survey.

In 2004, federal lobbyists spent $2.1 billion - the equivalent of the gross domestic product of the Republic of Congo. The biggest spender was the health care industry at $325 million; technology and the financial services were not far behind.

In the same year, candidates pursuing the presidency and seats in Congress spent more than $3 billion campaigning.

Years ago, Sen. Humbert H. Humphrey, D-Minn., said a senator paid attention to the government for five years and spent the sixth and last year of his term campaigning, recalled Senate historian Donald A. Ritchie. Today, lawmakers begin raising money non-stop from the moment they take the oath of office.

Faced with those steep expectations, abuses are inevitable, but the recent missteps have been staggering.

"Democrats were in power for 40 years. It's taken the Republicans only 10 years to get as corrupt," said Stanley Brand, a general counsel to the House under the late Speaker Tip O'Neill, D-Mass. "It tends to coagulate around the entrenched majority. They get sloppy, arrogant and inured to the risks of not following the law."

Leaders take the blame for misdeeds that occurred on their watch - and are assailed if their own hands are dirty. The combination of failing to control the malfeasance and contributing to it can be politically fatal.

"Any evidence of skullduggery or foul play reflects much more heavily on the leadership group," said former Rep. Bill Frenzel, R-Minn. "It reflects on the entire Congress, but the ones to pay the price are the leaders."

Caught in the recent wave of investigations and indictments are former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas; Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Administration Committee. All have denied any wrongdoing.

Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., resigned after pleading guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes in exchange for steering government work to defense contractors.

Scandals aren't limited to Washington.

In Ohio, Republican Gov. Bob Taft was convicted of four misdemeanor ethics violations for failing to report gifts and golf outings. In prison is John Rowland, the former GOP governor of Connecticut, who traded access to his office for vacations and home renovations. Former Republican Gov. George Ryan of Illinois is fending off racketeering charges.

Democrats can't claim they're immune as several in their ranks figure prominently in Justice Department inquiries. The investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff could take down lawmakers from both parties as well as members of the administration.

The cacophony over scandal is still ringing in the ears of Democrats, who lost control of Congress in 1994 after a string of ethical misdeeds. Among them was the House bank scandal in which hundreds of Republicans and Democrats admitted to writing bad checks at the House bank.

Voters had no problem grasping the offense and the familiar notion of writing rubber checks when no money was in the account.

When the House Republicans took over, they imposed stricter limits on gifts to lawmakers and the payment of travel expenses. But the GOP leadership also told lobbyists: If you want access, hire Republicans.

"To some degree it's reaching a new level," said former Rep. Vic Fazio, D-Calif. "The degree in which Abramoff is tightly tied to key members for the Republican Party is something unique. ... This is a guy who took good care of a lot of people in the Republican Party at the same time he abused his relationship with them."

The Abramoff web, however, has caught a few Democrats, including Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, who also has denied wrongdoing.

"Compared to Abscam, it's nothing," said William Canfield, a lawyer who has advised Congress on election investigations. "That was systematic of widespread fraud and corruption in the House and Senate. That set the benchmark and I don't think anything has come close. You had members meeting with undercover FBI agents and stuffing cash in their pockets."

One senator and six House members were convicted in Abscam, the FBI corruption investigation that began in 1978. Agents posed as Arab sheiks or their representatives and offered bribes to members of Congress.