Seven months before the November midterm elections, the Democrats are awash in ethics and corruption scandals in Congress and among the nation’s biggest governorships.
The major networks’ nightly news shows have largely ignored or played down the mounting allegations, charges and investigations targeting Democrats, but they are becoming a major issue in key campaigns that could help the Republicans make large gains in the House, Senate and state capitals.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pledged the Democrats would “drain the swamp” of corruption” in Washington when she and her party took control of the chamber, but much of the available evidence shows that, if anything, the Democrats’ ethical record is noticeably worse. In many cases involving Democrats, investigations into wrongdoing have been swept under the rug or slowed to a snail’s pace and penalties have been just a slap on the wrist.
“Instead of draining the swamp of corruption in Washington as Pelosi promised, Democrats are now swimming neck-deep in it,” said Brian Walsh, chief spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
“Whether it’s powerful committee chairs flouting tax laws, rampant earmark abuse, or a Senate nominee in Illinois who was a former banker to the mob, this isn’t change any American can believe in. Republicans will be running on returning accountability and checks and balances to Washington this November, and we are intent on earning back the trust of the American people while the Democrats continue to flout it,” Walsh told HUMAN EVENTS.
The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, known as the House ethics committee, has more than half a dozen investigations pending into Democratic wrongdoing on everything from tax evasion to trading pork-barrel projects for campaign contributions.
At the same time, the independent, outside Office of Congressional Ethics, created in 2008 and headed by former Justice Department attorney Leo J. Wise, who won convictions against Enron executives, reports that 36 House members were under investigation, the most in more than a decade.
But Democratic majority leaders aren’t happy with OCE’s aggressive investigations of its members and have rejected most of its findings. Among 12 cases OCE referred to the House Ethics Committee in December, all but one were cleared of any wrongdoing, and three were pending.
The biggest scandal at the ethics committee came late last month when two lawmakers were cleared of allegations they had traded earmarks for campaign donations.
Wise’s report in this case was the product of dozens of interviews and some 200,000 pages of documentation of the little-seen insider trading between lobbyists and congressmen over earmarks.
Wise’s stepped-up actions have angered House lawmakers and there has been talk in Democratic circles of limiting OCE’s authority.
But if anyone wants evidence of how hollow is Pelosi’s promise to drain the swamp, one need look no further than the scandals that have been long-swirling around Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel of New York.
Rangel was forced to step down from the chairmanship of the powerful, tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee in early March after being admonished—the lightest “penalty” possible—for accepting corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean.
But even then he was allowed to say his action was only “a leave of absence” as chairman, though few Democrats think he will be allowed to return to his post. He faces far more serious charges in an investigation that has dragged on for more than a year.
The ethics committee is still digging into allegations he used his House office to raise money for a building named in his honor at a New York college; failed to pay taxes on a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic; had to amend his congressional financial disclosure reports to show more than $500,000 in wealth that he had not reported, and that he improperly used his rent-controlled apartments for his campaigns.
Then the Democrats were hit by another scandal when New York Democratic Rep. Eric Massa suddenly resigned his House seat in the wake of allegations that the freshman congressman had sexually harassed a male staffer and had groped other male staffers in multiple incidents that triggered warnings to Democratic leaders last year. A Pelosi spokesman said concern over Massa’s inappropriate behavior was relayed to Pelosi’s office in October and was referred to the ethics committee.
The House Ethics Committee decided to drop its inquiry because of Massa’s resignation. But Republicans want an investigation into how—or even whether—House Democratic leaders responded to the earlier complaints, asking “what did they know and when did they know it?” The House voted 402-1 on a Republican resolution to send the issue to the ethics committee, though it does not appear that that panel will undertake any serious inquiry.
Pelosi, who aggressively went after Republican transgressions when the GOP was in control of the House, has been supremely indifferent to the Massa sex scandal, dismissing it as a minor matter. “It’s another subject people would like to make into a distraction,” she said in an interview on MSNBC.
Many other House Democrats were also facing ethics investigations, including Representatives Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, Alan Mollohan of West Virginia and Laura Richardson and Maxine Waters of California. But these, as well as other inquiries into House members, have been lingering for months, if not years, without any resolution.
Two of the Democrats’ most far-reaching scandals in this election cycle have been among their governors.
In Illinois, a state notorious for its political corruption, Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office last year for trying to sell the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama to the highest bidder.
Blagojevich, who now faces charges that include fraud and solicitation of bribery, goes on trial June 3.
In New York, Gov. David Paterson, accused of interfering in a domestic-violence investigation, abruptly ended his gubernatorial campaign last month –the state’s second recent Democratic governor (Eliot Spitzer was first) to be snared by scandal.
Democratic scandals have also rocked several Senate races that have given Republicans a shot at major upsets in some of the country’s bluest states.
Until the Blagojevich scandal struck, Obama’s Senate seat, seemed safely in Democratic hands. But then, troubling questions were raised by Blagojevich’s appointment of Roland Burris to temporarily fill Obama’s remaining term, and the Democratic nomination was eventually captured by state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias who has a notoriously checkered banking background that includes financial transactions with underworld figures who have heavily contributed to his campaign.
One of Giannoulias’ top donors is Nick Giannis who was arrested and charged with writing $1.9 million in bad checks from Broadway Bank, the Giannoulias family business. Giannis gave about $114,000 to Giannoulias’ campaigns for state treasurer and the Senate.
Questionable financial deals have also brought down Connecticut Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd, who decided in January not to seek reelection.
The powerful Senate Banking Committee chairman, with oversight over the U.S. financial industry, benefited from two sweetheart (4.5% and 4.25%) home mortgage loans in 2003 from former Countryside chief executive Angelo Mozilo.
The mortgage deals reportedly saved Dodd $75,000 over the life of the loans, according to an analysis by Portfolio magazine. “The savings came from rock-bottom interest rates and a free ‘float-down’–the right to borrow at a lower rate if interest rates fall before you’ve closed on the loan,” The Wall Street Journal reported.
Dodd was not the only Democrat to benefit from Countrywide Financial’s VIP mortgage program. Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, chairman of the Budget Committee, was one of several other government officials who received favorable loans after making a personal phone call to Mozilo.
The scandal caused Dodd’s approval polls to plummet in the midst of the housing meltdown and foreclosure crisis, forcing him to give up his bid for re-election to a sixth term, and giving Republicans a shot at the open Senate seat.
These and other Democrat scandals have sharply reduced whatever trust the voters had in their party to clean up corruption in Washington, especially in blue states like Illinois, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware and Massachusetts.
A recent Rasmussen poll found that voters still trust Democrats more than Republicans on ethics and corruption by 35% to 28%. Notably, though, 27% now said they were not sure who to trust.
But we may well be hearing a lot more about the Democratic corruption in the future–this time about offering bribes to affect the outcome of federal elections.
Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania has charged that someone at White House he refuses to identify offered him a federal job if he agreed to drop out of the Democratic primary battle against Sen. Arlen Specter. That has spurred demands from Republicans for the appointment of a special prosecutor after months of evasion by the Obama Administration.
If an offer was made, it was not the first time Obama’s White House tried to buy off a Democrat with a political bribe to drop out of a party primary.
The Denver Post reported last year that former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff was apparently offered a federal job by top Obama “fixer” Jim Messina if the Colorado Democrat would abandon his Democratic primary bid against appointed Sen. Michael Bennet.
“When President Obama promised to change the way Washington worked, Americans weren’t picturing allegations of bribery and shady White House cover-ups. President Obama and his administration should come clean immediately,” said Amber Marchand, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.