A Congressional den of thieves
By Doug Thompson
Too many members of Congress treat their position as lawmakers as a license to steal, living large at taxpayer expense, ignoring laws that apply to ordinary Americans and betraying the trust of the public that put them there.
"There's no doubt that politics attracts the glib, the fast talker and the con artist," says retired Southern Illinois University political scientist George Harleigh. "It's a natural place for those who think fast on their feet."
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay is currently under fire for his many ethical breaches. Congress has always had its share of rogues and scoundrels, including:
Ohio Congressman Jim Trafficant, currently in prison for fraud, influence peddling and money laundering.
Adam Clayton Powell, the fast-talking Harlem Congressman who was re-elected even after Congress expelled him in 1967. Powell had survived charges of income-tax evasion (with a hung jury) even before his first election to Congress.
Wes Cooley, the Oregon Congressman who lied about serving in the Korean War, quit Congress under a cloud in 1996, and was later convicted of falsifying VA loan applications.
California Congressman Walter Tucker, who quit Congress in 1996 just before his conviction for accepting $30,000 in bribes and sentenced to 27 months in the federal pen.
Congressmen have gone to jail for child molestation, bribery, fraud, misuse of public funds and various crimes and misdemeanors. Some have resigned in disgrace: Wayne Hayes because he put his mistress on his payroll as a secretary (she couldn't type) or Wilbur Mills because he messed around with a stripper.
Yet Gary Studds of Massachusetts seduced a young male House page, defied the House when it censured him and was re-elected several times. But Dan Crane of Illinois had sex with a female page, cried and begged forgiveness on the floor of the House and lost his next election.
Rep. Barney Frank, also of Massachussets, the most openly-gay member of Congres, shared his Washington townhouse with a male prostitute who ran a homosexual whorehouse out of the residence. But that didn't stop him from winning re-election easily or serving as the primary Democratic defender of Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
"Congressional corruption has no party, no ideology and no gender," says Constitutional Scholar Alan Baker. "It's bipartisan and soaked in history and tradition. It also often defies logic."
Sociologist Sandra Reeves believes public perception of widespread corruption among elected officials is one of the reasons for the widespread ambivalence over Bill Clinton's sex and money scandals or the current problems of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
"If the public felt Congress was an honest institution, there might be more outrage," Reeves says. "But too many people feel too many of those in our government are dirty."
"Right when the Republicans were trying to prove malfeasance on the part of the Clinton administration in accepting campaign contributions from foreign sources, they have one of their own (Congressman Jay Kim of California) convicted of doing the same thing," Harleigh says. "But instead of sending him packing, they embrace him and talk about what a great guy he is and how important he is to Congress and the party. What kind of message does that send?"
Congress is nearly always slow to act against its own. It took the Senate three years to investigate and finally get rid of serial sexual harasser Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon. Many of Packwood's Republican colleagues defended him right up until the end.
"The leadership of both Houses of Congress needs a serious wake up call," says Baker. "You can't preach morality and family values while you wink and look the other way when one your own breaks the law."
In 1983, California Congressman Bob Dornan went to Grenada with a delegation to review the American military intervention of the Caribbean island. He tried to leave the island with a stolen Russian AK-47 in his suitcase, but the weapon was discovered by U.S. Military Personnel and confiscated.
"He threw a royal hissy fit," says retired Army Sgt. Andy Mackie, who was on Grenada at the time. "He kept ranting and raving about how he was a Congressman and if he wanted an AK-47 we had no right to take it from him." The Army kept the weapon and destroyed it.
In 1982, former New York Congressman Norman Lent tried to have 50 counterfeit Rolex watches sent to him from Taiwan. When customs officers in Baltimore seized the shipment, Lent called the Director of the Customs Service on the carpet and demanded to know why his watches were taken. The director stood his ground and the watches were destroyed.
"We're talking about a culture of 'I'm better than everyone else' and 'I don't have to answer to anyone,'" says Baker. "It is pervasive and it has been part of the Congressional culture for a long time. You may hear a lot of talk about accountability and reform, but it simply is not happening."
Former GOP House Staffer Jonathan Luckstill says his tenure on the Hill taught him that a crime is only a crime when the other party commits it.
"If a Democrat is caught breaking the law, that's justice," he says. "But when a Republican is charged, it's politics."
March 22, 2005
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