May 8th, 2000

The Battle Against Corruption in Congress Has Collapsed

By Gary Ruskin
Commercial Alert

The battle against corruption in Congress has collapsed.

Not surprisingly, the people who brought this about are Members of Congress themselves - Republicans and Democrats alike. You put the kids in charge of discipline in the school - with little accountability - and this is what you get.

The signs are everywhere.

The recent case of Ann Eppard is a sad example. Eppard is a former chief of staff to Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. She is now perhaps the most powerful transportation lobbyist in Washington.

In 1998, she was indicted for allegedly accepting $230,000 in illegal gratuities while she was on Shuster’s staff. By all accounts, prosecutors had a strong case, with firm knowledge of the gifts and the official acts Eppard did for the donors.

Nevertheless, Eppard pleaded guilty only to a misdemeanor, and received a paltry $5,000 fine. That wasn’t even a slap on the wrist. But prosecutors claimed that it was best deal they could get, following the disastrous Supreme Court decision in the United States v. Sun-Diamond Growers of California. Under this decision, in illegal gratuities cases, prosecutors have to show a precise, and nearly unprovable, connection between a gift and a particular official act.

Prosecuting bribery is even harder. For that, prosecutors usually need evidence of a quid pro quo on audio or videotape.

"It’s got to be a pretty stupid lobbyist," said Philip Heymann, a Harvard law professor and former deputy attorney general, "who tries to make an explicitly criminal deal with a legislator." The upshot is that our federal bribery and illegal gratuities laws pose little threat to corrupt Members or their staff.

On top of that, the Public Integrity section of the Justice Department has been especially weak in enforcing the law. Attorney General Janet Reno suffered repeated public humiliations over Public Integrity’s slipshod investigation into the 1996 campaign finance scandals.

Less well-known are the inexplicable denials of routine Internal Revenue Service requests to empanel a grand jury to investigate whether then-Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.) and her 1992 campaign manager Kgosie Matthews converted $281,000 in campaign funds to personal use, and failed to pay taxes on those funds.

Incredibly, Public Integrity fought hard to ensure that then-Rep. Jay Kim (R-Calif.) pleaded guilty only to a misdemeanor, even though he took more than $250,000 in illegal foreign and corporate contributions, and probably stole a Congressional election. That’s hardly a deterrent to election fraud.

Although the House and the Senate have a constitutional duty to discipline their own Members, Democrats and Republicans have joined in a liberal permissiveness toward influence-peddling, graft and abuse of power. Together the two parties have transformed the ethics committees into a political shield - for all but the most powerless Members - against investigations of corruption.

In a notably arrogant pro-corruption measure, the House actually revoked the limited right of ordinary citizens to file ethics complaints. In September 1997, the House required citizens to obtain a letter of transmittal from a House Member prior to filing a complaint.

We called this rule the "Corrupt Politicians’ Protection Act." Since 1997, no citizen has yet succeeded in obtaining such a transmittal letter. The bipartisan good ol’ boys network has locked arms against the public. Democrats won’t file against Republicans, and vice versa. The first rule of Congress is to protect your own.

At this moment, the Congressional Accountability Project has evidence of serious wrongdoing by several House Members. We have prepared complaints against Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee; Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of the Government Reform Committee; and Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.). However, no Member will provide the letter needed to initiate the ethics process.

But then, the sloth of the House ethics committee is legendary. In 1996, for example, we filed a complaint against Shuster, regarding his web of legislative, political, financial and personal ties to Eppard. Since then, the ethics committee hasn’t even issued an interim report on the matter.

That’s not so bad for Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), the chairman of the subcommittee investigating Shuster; he collected a generous airport provision from - you guessed it - Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Shuster.

At least the Senate Ethics Committee allows citizens to file complaints about corruption. They just don’t investigate them.

When we filed a complaint against then-Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) regarding his receipt of a $37,125 one-day gain from a corrupt brokerage house, The New York Observer reported that "according to a well-placed Democratic source, the committee’s then-chairman, Senator Mitch McConnell (R- Ky.) ... made it clear that there would be no investigation of Mr. D’Amato. ‘There was never really any discussion about it, because McConnell was adamant.’"

The principal bulwark against legislative corruption, the Federal Election Campaign Act, is in shambles. It’s almost "anything goes" in the campaign finance arena.

Perhaps worse, corporate and wealthy favor-seekers may now give unlimited undisclosed contributions to groups associated with Members of Congress that are authorized under Section 527 of the tax code. It’s a devastating loophole.

Public corruption is not a victimless crime. When money buys Congressional favors, votes and seats, those without money lose - a lot.

Finally, the Federal Election Commission, which is supposed to police the federal campaign finance laws, has been hamstrung by Congress in so many ways that it cannot carry out its mission.

But what was wrecked can be rebuilt. Here’s how to root out corruption in Congress:

Strengthen the illegal-gratuities statute by reinstating the theory of " status gratuities." This would prohibit a public official from receiving a gift from a favor-seeker meant merely to keep the official "happy" or to " create a better working atmosphere" - without a connection to a specific official act;

Allow citizens to file ethics complaints in the House of Representatives;

Routinely send ethics complaints in the House and the Senate to outside counsel for investigation;

Pass the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform measure to ban soft money, and require sham "issue ads" that are really campaign ads to be paid for with federal, hard money;

Strengthen the FEC by appointing anti-corruption commissioners, increasing its investigative budget and authorizing random audits of campaigns; and

Require "527" organizations to disclose their contributors and obey federal, hard-money contribution limits if contributions are used for sham " issue ads."

Countless Members of Congress boast of being tough on crime. It’s time for them to walk their talk and summon the courage to get tough on corruption in Congress.


  1. Posted by Tatchuo on February 17th, 2006

    So, it is true that the Federal Congress is not a representative body and that is does not represent the people of the United States as well as it should?

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