The Democratic Party is going to have a difficult time persuading Americans that the lobbying and bribery scandals in Congress begin and end with the Republicans.
Suddenly, the Democrats are battling sordid charges of influence-peddling, payoffs and get-rich-quick schemes and the embarrassment of FBI raids on Democratic congressional offices — something the venerable law-enforcement agency has never done before in its history.
Republicans have taken their lumps, especially from the fallout of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a California Republican, who is headed to prison for a bribery scheme with a defense contractor. However, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal seems almost tame compared to what is emerging on Democratic turf. Both Democrats and Republicans received campaign contributions from Abramoff, his associates and Indian tribes he represented. And it still isn’t clear that any of these payments were illegal.
The Democrats’ new series of scandals go far beyond campaign contributions. This corruption has to do with using public funds to enrich one’s friends, obtaining favorable loans and using congressional authority to drum up foreign contracts for business cronies in exchange for cold, hard cash.
Democratic Congressmen William J. Jefferson of Louisiana and Alan B. Mollohan of West Virginia are at the center of the latest investigative storm.
The FBI is probing accusations Jefferson was given money, stocks and other benefits from a technology company in exchange for helping the firm obtain business in Nigeria.
Mollohan is under scrutiny for his role in obtaining millions of dollars in pork-barrel appropriations for his state, a network of groups he set up that benefited from the money and a personal fortune that grew from $565,000 to more than $6.3 million in just four years.
Both deny any wrongdoing.
But an FBI raid on Jefferson’s home yielded $90,000 in cash stuffed in frozen-food packages in his freezer, and he was videotaped by federal agents as they gave him a leather briefcase filled with $100,000 in $100 bills in a sting operation outside the Pentagon City Ritz-Carlton.
The House Ethics Committee, from which Mollohan was forced to resign under pressure of Democratic leaders, has begun two investigations of its own: one dealing with Jefferson and the other to find out if Republican Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio received benefits from Abramoff’s firm as a result of official actions he undertook as a member of Congress.
Ney may yet escape charges because they deal in part with speeches he gave in Congress, but the two new Democratic cases risk undermining their party’s plans to make GOP corruption a key issue in the elections.
"The Democrats’ attempt to paint this as a one-sided issue has come back to bite them. They have a lot of ethics problems in their own closet," said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
Democrats maintain the lobbying scandal that snared Republicans is much worse. "The American people know the Republicans are running Congress and the Democrats are more capable of reforming ethics and honesty in Washington," said Bill Burton, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
But now the spotlight is shining on two Democratic scandals that Republican strategists believe will help turn the political tide in their favor.
"What the Democrats clearly tried to do at the beginning of the year was to shape this as a purely Republican problem. That effort was completely undercut by what happened to Mollohan and Jefferson," GOP pollster David Winston told me.
"The majority of voters do not identify the corruption story with a single party," he said. "They still see it as a problem in both parties."
A Pew poll in February found a 34 percent plurality blamed "both parties equally." An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in March had Democrats trusted more on ethics than Republicans by 25 percent to 19 percent, but nearly 30 percent said they were "both about the same" on honesty and ethics.
Democratic political strategists tell me that, even though the scandals draw concern, most Americans are interested in other things right now. Voters are more concerned about "the perception of indifference and incompetence in the administration and its congressional allies," said Democratic pollster Alan Secrest.
"While the corruption issue is an important subtext, it is playing a lesser role in driving the anger we see from many voters," he said.
That’s not how GOP leadership officials see it. "The Democrats’ ‘culture of corruption’ agenda has been washed away by their own ethics tsunami," Bonjean told me.
Timing is everything in politics, and the Democrats have been hit hard in the middle of this election year by their own unsavory ethical scandals at a time when they needed to look squeaky clean.
If charges are brought against Jefferson and Mollohan, they would be the new poster boys for corruption in Washington, and that would destroy whatever credibility Democrats had on this issue.