Reform School Dropouts

Congress vows changes but makes only a few after Abramoff scandal

The proposals for the reform of lobbying announced last week by both parties are window dressing for this year's midterm elections. The measures have nothing to do with reform and should have the overall effect of making people only more angry at the corruption on Capitol Hill. Not one of the proposals deals with the central issue, the large amounts of money lobbyists and their clients pour into members' campaign funds. "Neither [Democrats nor Republicans] would prohibit lobbyists from making campaign contributions, arranging fundraisers, bundling contributions from clients, or serving on members' fundraising committees," Joan Claybrook, president of the nonprofit Public Citizen, said last week. "Second, neither proposes an independent ethics watchdog to audit disclosure reports from lawmakers, staff, and lobbyists and to conduct independent investigations of alleged violations."

Nor does either party want to change the "earmarks" process whereby the Appropriations Committee chair allows members to stick their own special projects into an already voted-on piece of legislation. One well-known earmark is Alaskan GOP senator Ted Stevens's infamous "bridge to nowhere" in his home state.

"There is no substantive change to the rules on earmarking in any of these proposals," Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said at a press conference Thursday. "Lobbyists go to specific members for earmarks worth hundreds of millions of dollars," she continued. "Democrats are addicted to earmarks too, which is why they aren't taking this on. They talk about reform, but it's all for show. There's no actual substance to it. This is about face saving, rather than making a difference. [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi has said numerous times that the ethics committee needs to be investigating certain members of Congress, but she still hasn't done the one thing she needs to do—which is file an ethics complaint."

The only serious recourse for reform would be a constitutional amendment banning private money from elections and making them completely publicly financed. Needless to say, everybody in Congress and on K Street dreads that idea.

Pelosi barks, won't bite

Meanwhile, the lobby scandals keep coming. Besieged by the endless tentacles of the Jack Abramoff corruption debacle, Republicans are trying to swat back at the Dems by publicizing the case of New Orleans representative William Jefferson, whose former legislative director Brett M. Pfeffer is in legal difficulties.

Many will remember Jefferson as the spiffily dressed congressman on TV who was escorted back to his fine New Orleans home by a special military detachment in the midst of the Katrina nightmare.

Last week, Pfeffer, the former staffer, pleaded guilty in Federal District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, to aiding and abetting bribery of a public official, promising to help the government with its ongoing criminal investigation. Pfeffer could go to prison for as long as 20 years. In court he said that when he, now in private business, was trying to put together a telecommunications deal with Ghana and Nigeria, a certain congressman demanded a 5 to 7 percent stake in the deal, plus a monthly retainer of $2,500 to $5,000 for a family member in exchange for his support. While the congressman was not named in court, he nonetheless was quickly identified in the press as Jefferson.

The charges against Pfeffer were brought after the FBI raided Jefferson's home last summer, reportedly removing cash from the congressman's freezer. They also raided the Maryland home of a Nigerian official. At the time, the FBI was looking for papers connecting the Nigerian man and his wife to the telecommunications deal with Jefferson.

The Dems, of course, claim this is just one case on their side, while the Republicans are being investigated in droves.

The Abramoff scandal keeps on growing. Last week the Billings (Montana) Gazette reported that Will Brooke, former chief of staff for Montana's Republican senator Conrad Burns, confirmed to its reporters that the Justice Department was indeed looking into the circumstances surrounding a 2001 Super Bowl trip. Brooke, who left Burns to take a job with Abramoff's Greenberg Traurig firm, went on that trip, as did a Senate staffer assigned to the interior committee—which Burns heads. "That whole trip has been the subject of investigation," Brooke told the Gazette. During the trip, Abramoff reportedly offered staffers $500 each in poker chips, and treated his guests to a ride on a SunCruz gambling ship he owned. Burns has repeatedly claimed he is not involved in the Justice Department's ongoing investigation, and claimed that he was being smeared by Montana Democrats among others.

Burns is of interest to the feds because he took a $5,000 contribution from Abramoff before voting against an immigration measure involving the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific. Abramoff had been hired to help defeat the measure. In addition, The Washington Post reported Burns got $150,000 from Abramoff and his Indian clients after he put up a fight in Congress for a $3 million grant to a rich tribe that the Interior Department didn't think needed the money.

Meanwhile, Minority Leader Pelosi, of California, brayed for an ethics committee probe of two Northern California Republican congressmen—Richard Pombo and John Doolittle.

Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider told the Voice that the idea of this "culture of corruption" in Congress applying equally to Democrats and Republicans is "absolutely false."

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