When the Starr Report was posted on the World Wide Web a little over a week ago, few insiders could resist chuckling at the irony of the lurid document’s electronic disclosure mere hours after a congressional hearing on Internet pornography. There was, however, an irony that was even less remarked upon: while the House of Representatives set a land-speed record to post online a report detailing the President’s sex life, the legislative body still hasn’t conveyed to cyberspace such simple items as legislators’ complete voting records.
But the more immediate, yet underexamined, issue was whether or not Congress, based on the actions and oversight of its own members, really has the moral authority to sit in judgment of the president. While the impeachment process may be solemn and sacred, the same, alas, cannot necessarily be said about the Representatives and Senators who take part in it. “To be frank, if every ethics complaint or investigation was run like Starr’s investigation of the president—start with something financial years ago and just keep expanding in search of duplicity—a lot of people up here would be in a world of hurt,” says a veteran Republican Senate staffer. “But luckily, unless someone fucks up big time, that usually doesn’t happen.”
In the realm of sex-related malfeasance, memories of figures like Wilbur Mills, the Arkansas Democrat who in 1974 ended up drunk in the Tidal Basin with a stripper, and Mel Reynolds, the Democratic Illinois congressman convicted in 1995 for having sex with a minor, still loom large. Newer disclosures, like that of Dan Burton’s illegitimate love child and Henry Hyde’s home-wrecking five-year affair, cast a longer shadow on the Congress’s ability to act as arbiter of the president’s punishment.
And in recent years, numerous legislators have had questions raised about dubious actions with more public ramifications—ranging from illicit campaign financing to abuse of power. Gary Ruskin, director of the non-profit, non-partisan Congressional Accountability Project (CAP), believes it should be a given that the House and Senate should routinely send ethics complaints to outside counsel for investigation, and that Congress should promptly punish members who break ethics rules. However, he says, this rarely happens, because members simply don’t like policing themselves. “The reality is, the ethics processes in the House and Senate are well-designed to impede, limit, curtail, and prevent the possibility of investigation.”
Take, for example, the case of New York’s own Senator Alfonse D’Amato, who made $37,125 in one day of stock trading in 1993. At the time, D’Amato’s broker, Stratton Oakmont Inc., was under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission—an agency overseen by D’Amato’s Banking Committee. This fact seemed significant to Ruskin, and worthy of investigation. Ruskin filed an ethics complaint, which included a report from an independent consultant who had concluded that D’Amato had gotten preferential treatment from Stratton. Rather than launch a full investigation, the ethics committee quickly reviewed the matter and sent Ruskin back a letter saying it had concluded “that no improper conduct and no violation of law or Senate rule occurred.”
The reason for this strange outcome became clearer a bit later when a well-placed Democratic source told reporter Mary Jacoby that then-Ethics Committee chairman and D’Amato’s fellow Republican Mitch McConnell “was adamant” there would be no inquiry.
More recently, it’s been reported that the Internal Revenue Service found that Senator Carol Moseley-Braun may have converted campaign funds to personal funds and not paid taxes on them. The IRS, which completed its own a 15-month probe of the matter in 1995, had recommended a grand jury investigation. But the Tax Division of the Justice Department twice declined to initiate any such proceedings. And though converting campaign money to personal money is also a violation of Senate rules, the ethics committee has yet to show any interest in investigating Moseley-Braun.
Part of the problem, says Ruskin, is that the Congressional ethics oversight mechanism—particularly in the House—harkens back to a line from Animal House: “They can’t do that to our pledges. Only we can do that to our pledges.” While any person off the street can file a Senate ethics complaint, the average citizen can’t just send up an ethics complaint to the House. It used to be that a citizen needed either a “Letter of Transmittal” from one House member or the somewhat easier to obtain “Letter of Refusal” (a document indicating that a congressman was unwilling to go forth with an ethics filing) from three members in order to start an investigation. But as part of the House Republicans’ “reform” measures, the Letters of Refusal option was killed in September 1997. And even if a Letter of Transmittal is obtained, there’s no guarantee anything will happen. For example, using a bizarre interpretation of House procedures, the ethics committee still hasn’t taken action on a 1996 campaign finance complaint filed against Newt Gingrich.
While there’s no shortage of members willing to file complaints when it comes to prime political targets—Republican Newt Gingrich and Democrat David Bonior among them—when it comes to either the small fry or the quiet-but-powerful, people tend to be more reflective. For example, while there have been a bevy of allegations swirling around congressman Bud Shuster, it took Ruskin seven months in 1996 to get the three required Letters of Refusal to start a probe. The reason? No one wanted to risk antagonizing the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, who can easily give or take away valued pork.
The congressional ethics committees aren’t always doddering or unresponsive; Bob Packwood got a thorough going-over, and the infamous “Keating Five” investigation took three years and included an outside counsel. But even when a committee comes down hard on someone, the fallout usually dissipates fast. Though censured in 1983 for having sex with a 17-year-old boy, Representative Gerry Studds went on to serve effectively. And few recall the fact that in 1987, then-Representative Richard Stallings was rebuked by the House Ethics Committee for using campaign money to buy a car. Indeed, even though Newt Gingrich got an unprecedented Speaker-sized spanking from the House for providing (in Newt’s own words) “inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable” information to the ethics committee, his fine of $300,000 for lying about use of public money seems small-time compared to the penalty President Clinton currently faces.
On the following pages is a partial list of current congressional members whose indiscretions should be kept in mind as we watch them judge the prez.
Rep. Newt Gingrich | Rep. Jay Kim | Rep. Corrine Brown | Senator Phil Gramm | Senator Rick Santorum | Rep. Jerry Costello | Rep. Tom DeLay | Rep. Henry Hyde | Rep. Dan Burton | Rep. Helen Chenoweth | Rep. Barney Frank | Senator Carol Moseley-Braun | Senator Don Nickles | Rep. Bud Shuster
The red flags: Newt’s problems, in many respects, are remarkably parallel to those of his nemesis, Bill Clinton: while the independent counsel’s report logs several instances of the president’s lying, Gingrich, in the course of one house investigation, made 13 false or misleading statements (via his lawyer) to the House Ethics Committee. The speaker of the house also prevaricated when queried about accepting a $4.5 million book advance from Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins and then meeting with the media mogul to discuss his legislative needs. He also used taxpayer-funded nonprofit groups for partisan means. His private problems also parallel Clinton’s. According to former campaign staffer Dot Crews, Gingrich “had girlfriends—some serious, some trivial,” which distracted him from the more onerous business of campaigning in 1974. He apparently adjusted his behavior for semantic reasons: says former Gingrich paramour Anne Manning of a 1977 encounter, “We had oral sex . . . [so] he can say, ‘I never slept with her.’ ”
Called into account?: Yes. Though found to be in violation of House rules on numerous occasions, Gingrich has only had one major punishment meted out: A formal House reprimand and a $300,000 fine imposed for making misleading statements to the ethics committee, and failing to seek legal counsel on the use of nonprofit money for political purposes. Also decided to forgo the $4.5 million advance.
Final outcome: Still the Speaker, possible presidential contender, beloved figure of the Right, including “family values” proponents.
vox populi, vox dei: “We could have won in 1974 if we could have kept him out of the office, screwing her on the desk.”—Gingrich’s 1974 campaign treasurer Kip Carter.
The red flag: Receiving huge illegal campaign contributions.
Called into account?: Yes—but not, to date, by Congress. Though the Justice Department investigated and Kim ultimately pled guilty to accepting $230,000 in illicit contributions, the House Ethics Committee didn’t get around to launching an investigation until September 1997—months after Kim entered his plea. Since then, no reports have been issued, no apparent actions taken.
Final outcome: Sentenced to a year’s probation by a federal court, Kim holds the distinction of being the only member of Congress to have sported a monitoring device shackled to his ankle, giving new meaning to the phrase “serving in Congress.”
vox populi, vox dei: “The largest amount of criminal campaign finance violations ever committed by a member of Congress.”—federal prosecutors describing the Kim case in their sentencing report.
The red flag: Brown zealously defended Foutanga Sissoko, a West African citizen who would eventually plead guilty to attempting to bribe U.S. customs officials and was recently alleged to have stolen $240 million from a foreign bank. While Brown did nothing illegal in championing Sissiko’s case, the subsequent undisclosed gift of a $40,000 Lexus LS 400 to her daughter—which Sissoko’s lawyer termed a “gesture of friendship” for Brown—may mean the congresswoman is at least in violation of financial disclosure laws, if not laws and house rules governing bribes, illegal gratuities, and improper gifts.
Called into account?:Nope. Though the Congressional Accountability Project (CAP) has drafted a complaint against Brown, no member of the House has shown any interest in formally filing it with the Ethics Committee. A Florida grand jury, however, is investigating.
Final outcome: Still pending.
vox populi, vox dei: “Never in any case I’ve ever had any dealings with was there such an attempt to put so much political pressure on the prosecutors.” —Assistant U.S. attorney Richard Scruggs, on Brown’s involvement in the Sissoko prosecution.
The red flags: Gramm was less-than-forthcoming about using his influence to help get parole in 1979 for a convicted drug and arms dealer. The dealer has since returned to prison three more times. Gramm also let savings and loan operator Jerry Stiles (later convicted of financial crimes) pay back almost half of the $117,000 that he advanced Gramm in 1987—and shortly thereafter, Gramm moved a bill through Congress allowing ailing Texas S&Ls to stay open. According to Bob Packwood’s diary, Gramm may have also laundered illegal campaign funds for Packwood. Further, he made technically illegal fundraising phone calls from his office. Finally, the good senator apparently forced the transfers and firing of U.S. Fish and Wildlife enforcement officers who interfered with his hunting.
Called into account?: Hardly. When the Senate Ethics Committee investigated the S&L matter, it concluded that the $54,000 Stiles paid was not a payment, but a “cost overrun.” The committee also declined to investigate the Packwood matter, as well as the phone fundraising matter.
Final outcome: Ran but bowed out in 1996 Republican Presidential Primary. Currently Chairman of the Senate Health Care Subcommittee.
vox populi, vox dei: “Senator Phil Gramm has a charmed way with the Senate Ethics Committee. Faced with questions about the Texas Republican, the committee does not bother to investigate. It simply accepts his version of the events, provided in secret correspondence, and then quietly issues a letter that the Senator can use to deflect critics.” —New York Times editorial, April 18, 1994.
The red flag: A 1994 draft complaint alleges that Santorum violated the House ethics rules by using government staff for campaign and fundraising purposes.
Called into account?:Nope. CAP drafted the complaint, but couldn’t find any member willing to file it with the Ethics Committee.
Final outcome: Then-representative Santorum was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1994.
vox populi, vox dei: “The Santorum memorandum illuminates the appearance and possible reality of an improper linkage between congressional and campaign activities by Congressman Santorum. These possible ethical violations warrant a full investigation by your committee.” —Gary Ruskin and Ralph Nader of the Congressional Accountability Project, to Jim McDermott, then-chairman of the House Ethics Committee.
The red flag: Costello was revealed as an unindicted coconspirator in the case of old friend Amiel Cueto, convicted of obstructing justice in a federal investigation of illegal gambling. Costello also voted for a bill that benefited a casino deal in which he allegedly had an undisclosed interest. (Costello has denied these charges.)
Called into account?: Nope. No House member has shown an interest in filing any formal complaint.
Final outcome: Costello managed to find a legal loophole that allowed him to use $42,659 in campaign funds to pay for legal costs related to the Cueto matter.
vox populi, vox dei: “He had warned Cueto, a lawyer and friend since childhood, of the dangers of representing and joining in business ventures with Thomas Venezia, a topless club magnate.”—The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 24, 1998, reporting on Costello’s characterization of his relationship with Cueto.
The red flags: DeLay effectively told lobbyists that contributions to Democrats would mean no access to his office. Also, he’s developed an intriguing pattern of favorable actions for businesses that retain brother Randy as a lobbyist.
Called into account?: With great difficulty. The CAP’s Ruskin spent seven months in 1996 trying to get a complaint filed—and managed to do it only after gathering three Letters of Refusal. The complaint, citing DeLay’s threat of shutting out financially unfriendly lobbyists, was delayed even longer when a moratorium on ethics investigations was declared from February to September 1997.
Final outcome: DeLay was cleared by the Ethics Committee in November ’97. He’s still the majority whip, and has called for Clinton’s resignation on the grounds that the president lacks “moral authority.”
vox populi, vox dei: “He is clearly abusing his position.” —Bill Magavern, Director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, on Tom being lobbied by brother Randy.
The red flags (public):Though married with four children, Hyde had a five-year affair, from 1965 to 1969, with Cherie Snodgrass, married mother of three. Cherie’s ex-husband refers to the devoutly Catholic prolife Hyde as “the hypocrite who broke up my family.” Hyde was also a director of the failed Clyde Federal Savings and Loan, which cost taxpayers $67 million to bail out and was subjected to criminal prosecution. Though the S&L eventually settled with the federal government, Hyde didn’t pay a dime.
Called into account?: On the S&L matter, CAP asked the FDIC, and over 20 Democratic House members, to probe Hyde’s conduct more specifically; the agency and the Democrats declined. Regarding Snodgrass, Salon, the online magazine, broke the story of the affair last week, giving supporters and detractors an interesting glimpse of Hyde as a ’60s-vintage cad lavishing jewelry and gifts on a kept woman.
Final outcome: Still the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Hyde is determined to “deal judiciously with serious felony allegations” against the president despite attempts to “intimidate me.”
vox populi, vox dei: “She’s just so fed up with [Hyde], with how two-faced he is. She knows she wasn’t his first [mistress] and she wasn’t his last. She hates his antiabortion stuff, and all the family values stuff. She thinks he’s bad for the country, he’s too powerful and he’s hypocritical.” —Cherie Snodgrass’s daughter, in Salon.
The red flag (public): The married Burton recently admitted to fathering an illegitimate son. In a more “official” capacity, he allegedly shook down lobbyist Mark Seigel for a donation.
Called into account?: Fear of revelations in an upcoming Vanity Fair profile led Burton to admit his extracurricular fatherhood. Also, there’s an ongoing FBI probe of the campaign finance allegations.
Final outcome: Fallout from the Vanity Fair story should determine the final outcome for Burton.
vox populi, vox dei: “Back when he had a seat in the General Assembly and back during his early terms in Congress, Dan Burton had a reputation for sex with convenient women that was at least as awful and awesome as the Clinton reputation. When Hoosier politicians and pundits gathered, they would tell each other stories about Burton scoring with interns and pages, scoring with staffers in his offices and staffers in his campaign, scoring with Carmel housewives and some fine and famous Christian women elsewhere in his district.” —Veteran Indianapolis journalist Harrison Ullmann, reminiscing on tales of Burton’s younger days in NUVO, Indianapolis’s alternative newsweekly.
The red flag: Apparently fearing disclosure elsewhere, Chenoweth admitted to having had an ongoing affair with a married man immediately after she cut a reelection commercial chastising Clinton and saying she was more reflective of “our founding fathers’ [belief] that political leaders’ personal conduct must be held to the highest standards.” Chenoweth, a darling of the right-wing family-values set, had publicly rebuked her 1994 opponent for having an affair.
Called into account?: Though she fessed up to the affair, the Salon story indicates the whole truth is still out there about the militia momma’s hypocritically libidinous activities.
Final outcome: We’ll see in November.
vox populi, vox dei: “Helen is living proof that you can fuck your brains out.” —an Idaho GOP operative on the state of Chenoweth’s savvy.
The red flag: Fixed parking tickets of male prostitute Steve Gobie. Also made misleading statements to Gobie’s parole officers.
Called into account?: Yes. The House went through a series of votes on appropriate punishment.
Final outcome: Though reprimanded by the full House on July 26, 1990, Frank was re-elected with a two-thirds majority mere months later. He continues to be a major player in the House.
vox populi, vox dei: “I should have known better.”—Frank on his inappropriate behavior.
The red flag: In 1995, the IRS twice asked the Justice Department to initiate a grand jury probe after it found evidence indicating possible conversion of campaign funds for personal use (reportedly $70,000 on designer clothes, $18,000 on jewelry) and violation of tax laws.
Called into account?: No. The Justice Department’s tax division didn’t impanel any grand juries and the Ethics Committee hasn’t taken up the matter either.
Final outcome: Thus far, no repercussions. See how she does in November.
vox populi, vox dei: “I hope that folks will conclude that maybe from the very beginning that campaign funds were properly handled and that we were telling the truth.” —Moseley-Braun at a July
press conference, citing the Justice Department refusals as exoneration.
The red flag: Shot a promotional video in his Senate office for Triad, a shadowy right-wing Republican fundraising group that, using shell organizations, dumped millions of dollars into attack advertising in the final days of the 1996 campaign.
Called into account?: Not really. Nickles’s Triad ties came up during the investigative hearings into campaign finance scandals conducted by Senator Fred Thompson.
Final outcome: Shortly after Nickles’s connection with Triad was broached, the Thompson committee ended its investigations, sparing Nickles from further scrutiny.
vox populi, vox dei: “My personal hope is the investigation won’t be extended unless there are significant things that have been uncovered.” —Nickles arguing against an extension on the life of the Thompson committee, which was poised to probe Nickles’s Triad connections.
The red flags: A complex, tangled web of political, financial, legislative, and personal ties between Shuster and former staffer-turned-lobbyist Ann Eppard. Once Shuster’s chief of staff, Eppard now vigorously (and lucratively) lobbies the congressman—especially in his capacity as chairman of the pork-filled transportation committee—while also serving as his chief fundraiser, a dual role that has raised eyebrows.
Called into account?: Kinda sorta. Though CAP was successful in getting a complaint filed (for Shuster’s free lodging in Eppard’s home), the House Ethics Committee has refused to let the organization ammend its complaint to include Shuster’s apparent pattern of blending official business and fundraising. The committee has also refused a request by CAP to appoint an outside counsel to thoroughly investigate Shuster. Additionally, Eppard was indicted by a federal grand jury in April for allegedly accepting $230,000 in illegal payments to influence a huge highway project in Boston known as the Big Dig.
Final outcome: Still up in the air.
vox populi, vox dei: “I prefer to believe that they are simply misinformed.”—Shuster, responding to charges from other Republicans that he derives his power by trading highway projects for votes.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 29, 1998