Ethics in Government Part II:
Political Corruption Has Infected Our Society
In yesterday’s blog I wrote about sexual improprieties of members of Congress including John Ensign (R-NV) who resigned last week effective on May 3 because he had an affair with his former political treasurer and fired her and her husband who had served in Ensign's legislative office. [See: Ethics in Government Part I: The Resignation of Senator John Ensign (http://bit.ly/gIzQ4E).] Today I look at corruption in Congress and restrict the discussion to incidents occurring since 2005. There are dozens of such examples of wrongdoing and for a more complete list go to http://washingtonindependent.com/377/members-of-congress-charged-with-a-crime-1798-2008.
Corruption in the political sense comes in many shapes and sizes. For example, someone in Congress might be approached by an external party to strike a deal for the Members' vote on a matter of concern to the external party in return for personal gain. Influence peddling and other lobbying-induced acts can lead a public servant down the ethical slippery slope where there is no turning back once the deed is done. Such acts violate societal norms of honesty, integrity and the failure to serve the public good. There are literally dozens of cases of corruption in Congress. Here are a few examples.
On August 6, 2009, former Representative William J. Jefferson (D-LA) was found guilty in federal court of accepting illegal payments. On November 13 of that year he was sentenced to 13 years for soliciting bribes, depriving citizens of honest service, money laundering and using his office as a racketeering enterprise. The FBI had set up a sting operation using an informant, a businesswoman, who wore a wire during the cash handoff. She recorded incriminating conversations about business deals in Africa and the payments he expected. The jurors saw a video of Jefferson collecting the money — the moment when the Democratic congressman reached into the trunk of an FBI informant's car and took a briefcase filled with the greenbacks. The defense argued that Jefferson had been acting as a business consultant, not a member of Congress carrying out official acts.
The most widespread example of bribery is the Jack Abramoff Indian casino lobbying scandal. On January 3, 2006, Abramoff pled guilty to three felony counts — conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion — involving charges stemming principally from his lobbying activities in Washington on behalf of Native American tribes. In addition, Abramoff and other defendants must make restitution of at least $25 million that was defrauded from clients, most notably the Native American tribes. Further, Abramoff owes the Internal Revenue Service $1.7 million as a result of his guilty plea to the tax evasion charge.
In the course of the scheme, the lobbyists were accused of illegally giving gifts and making campaign donations to legislators in return for votes or support of legislation. Representatives Bob Ney (R-OH) and Tom DeLay (R-TX) got caught up in the scandal. On November 3, 2006, Ney pled guilty to charges of conspiracy and making false statements to the House Ethics Committee that was investigating Ney for defrauding the US government and falsifying financial disclosure forms. Both charges were related to actions taken on behalf of Abramoff's clients in exchange for bribes, as well as separate actions taken on behalf of a foreign businessman in exchange for over $50,000 in gambling sprees at foreign private casinos. Ney resigned from the House on November 3, 2006 and was released from prison after serving 17 months.
As for DeLay (R-TX), he was convicted of money laundering in 2010 and sentenced to three years in prison but is free on bail while appealing his conviction. Abramoff allegedly provided DeLay with trips, gifts, and political donations in exchange for favors to Abramoff's lobbying clients, which included the government of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and Internet gambling. On November 24, 2010, DeLay was convicted by a Texas jury and the judge sentenced DeLay to three years in prison on the charge of conspiring to launder corporate money into political donations. On the charge of money laundering, DeLay was sentenced to five years in prison, but that was probated for 10 years, meaning DeLay would serve 10 years' probation. Delay is appealing his conviction. Since leaving Congress, DeLay has co-authored a political memoir, founded a strategic conservative political consulting firm and competed on Dancing with the Stars until stress fractures in his feet caused him to withdraw.
On November 28, 2005, former House member Randy (Duke) Cunningham resigned after pleading guilty to accepting at least $2.4 million in bribes and under-reporting his income for 2004. He pled guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud, wire fraud, and tax evasion. On March 3, 2006, Cunningham received a sentence of eight years and four months in prison and an order to pay $1.8 million in restitution. The charges against Cunningham identify a June 2005 real estate transaction when defense contractor Mitchell Wade, founder of the defense contracting firm Athena Innovative Solutions, bought Cunningham's house in upscale Del Mar, California for $1,675,000. A month later, Wade placed it back on the market where it remained unsold for 8 months until the price was reduced to $975,000. Cunningham was a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. Soon after the purchase, Wade began receiving tens of defense and intelligence contracts worth millions of dollars.
Expulsion is the most serious form of disciplinary action that can be taken against a Member of Congress. The U.S. Constitution provides that "Each House [of Congress] may determine the Rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member." In the entire history of the U.S. Congress, only 20 Members have been expelled. The latest was Representative James Traficant (D-OH) who was indicted by a federal grand jury on May 4, 2001, on charges of tax evasion, bribery, racketeering, conspiracy and obstruction of justice. He was released from prison on September 2, 2009, after serving a seven-year sentence.
The legal violations described above are important but so are the ethical lapses. These Members violated the public trust. Their behavior was motivated solely by self-interest. They never once stopped and thought about the consequences of their actions on their constituents, their family, and the country. Their behavior exemplifies all that is wrong with politics today. Add to the mix the conscience-less lobbyists, many of whom will do and say anything to further their cause, and you have a level of corruption that is endemic to the political process.
Something has to be done in our country to stop the culture of corruption both in politics and business before before we explode as a nation. Our system of government and capitalism is a political time bomb waiting to go off. Scandal after scandal in government and the mega-costly scandals in the banking and financial services industry, especially during the past ten years or so, have created a whiplash-type effect. Those of us concerned about ethics in society wonder in amazement how none of the political talk shows address these issues. Are we in denial as a nation or have we been so de-sensitized to scandals that we accept them as part of our daily lives?
Blog by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, April 26, 2011