History of Washington Scandals
The investigation into lobbyist Jack Abramoff and others is the
latest in a series of Washington corruption scandals that have
rocked the nation's capital.
"My own judgment is that this could be the biggest [lobbying
scandal] that we have seen in our lifetimes," congressional
scholar Norman Ornstein has said. "This may involve a more
institutional corruption scheme that could have great resonance."
As in the past, revelations of indiscretions and possible corruption
have prompted political parties to unveil reform packages. The
stories of influence peddling and the calls for reform are part
of an occasional cycle of corruption scandals that have plagued
Washington since the close of the Civil War.
Up until the late 19th century, the nation's capital was still
a sleepy, southern town where congressmen lived in boarding houses
that doubled as remote offices. With their families back in their
home districts, and few cultural outlets in the federal city,
legislators often loitered in clubs and hotel lobbies for social
It was during this time that President Ulysses S. Grant coined
the term "lobbying" to refer to the representatives
of corporate interest groups who would mingle among lawmakers.
But these cozy relationships soon led to scandal.
1872, the New York Sun revealed that several influential congressmen
were involved in a government contracting scheme with a dummy
railroad firm, Crédit Mobilier. Thomas Durant, a vice president
of the Union Pacific Railroad, created Crédit Mobilier
of America as a front for increasing its shareholders' profits.
In 1864, the company was given a no-bid contract to build a 667-mile
stretch of the Transcontinental Railroad, with much of the cost
being paid for by federal subsidies.
All of this was thanks to the work of Massachusetts Republican
Rep. Oakland Ames. Ames had gained influence as a key member of
the committee devoted to laying down railroad track during the
Civil War. In exchange for support of giving contracts and subsidies
to Crédit Mobilier, Ames sold shares to his fellow congressmen
at prices significantly below market value. When Crédit
Mobilier's profits skyrocketed during the railroad boom, executives
and congressmen alike reaped millions of dollars in profits. It
is believed that Crédit Mobilier received $47 million in
contracts, turning $21 million in profit.
When the Sun broke the story on the eve of the 1872 election,
House Speaker James Blaine, R-Maine, directed a committee of 13
congressmen to investigate the matter. Based on their findings,
the House of Representatives censured Ames and Whig James Brooks
of New York. Other implicated politicians included outgoing Vice
President Schuyler Colfax, incoming Vice President Henry Wilson,
and then-congressman and future President James Garfield.
In the wake of the Crédit Mobilier scandal, among other
smaller controversies, the House passed its first laws regulating
lobbying. Under the rules passed in 1876, lobbyists had to register
with the clerk of the House. Three years later, in order to prevent
lobbyists from posing as journalists, members of the press had
to register as well.
Teapot Dome: Corruption in the
Although Congress attempted to reform lobbying, the growing voice
of people who termed themselves "progressives" in the
country demanded more and expressed deep misgivings about those
seeking to influence legislation.
"Washington has seldom seen so numerous, so industrious,
or so insidious a body [as lobbyists]," said President Woodrow
Wilson in 1913.
Yet it was Wilson's successor, Warren Harding, who suffered from
the next major bribery scandal. The Teapot Dome scandal implicated
Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall and ruined the legacy of
the short-lived Harding presidency.
the course of previous administrations, the federal government
established emergency petroleum reserves in Elk Hills in California
and Teapot Dome in Wyoming for use by the Navy. In 1923, the Public
Lands Committee of the Senate began investigating the oil reserves
and discovered both had been illegally leased to oil tycoons by
Fall is believed to have received more than $300,000 in bribes,
but refused to answer questions before the Senate, claiming fear
of self-incrimination. E.L. Doheny of the Pan-American Oil Co.
confessed before the committee that he had given Fall a $100,000
"loan," among other gifts, for rights to the Elk Hills
reserves. Harry Sinclair of Sinclair (Mammoth) Oil was also implicated
in the scandal, but declined to cooperate, was charged with contempt
and fined $100,000.
Fall continued to fight prosecution until 1929, when he was also
fined $100,000 and spent a year in jail.
At the time, Democrats believed that they could take political
advantage of the scandal, but Doheny's testimony hurt them as
well. A significant figure in the Democratic Party in California,
Doheny implicated several Wilson administration officials in his
appearance before Congress. Doheny also admitted to paying the
presumed presidential candidate for the 1924 election, William
McAdoo, payments totaling $250,000.
Abscam and the Keating Five
In 1978, the Federal Bureau of Investigation embarked on a sting
operation, labeled Abscam, in which agents posed as Middle Eastern
businessmen offering bribes to senators and congressmen. The FBI
targeted 31 government officials in total during the operation,
including state officials in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Six congressmen, Democrats John Jenrette of South Carolina, Raymond
Lederer of Pennsylvania, Michael Myers of Pennsylvania, John Murphy
of New York and Frank Thompson of New Jersey, and Republican Richard
Kelly of Florida, and one senator, Democrat Harrison Williams
of New Jersey, were convicted of bribery and conspiracy charges
Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania also was indicted
but not prosecuted because he gave evidence against Murphy and
Thompson. Only one lawmaker, Republican Sen. Larry Pressler of
South Dakota, refused to take the bribe, saying at the time, "Wait
a minute, what you are suggesting may be illegal."
initially had the conviction overturned when a judge ruled the
sting amounted to illegal entrapment, but in 1984, a higher court
sentenced Kelly to 13 months in prison. Kelly was famously caught
on videotape packing his pockets with $25,000 in cash, asking
the undercover agents, "Does it show?"
But as opposed to Abscam tarnishing Congress, it was the FBI
that dealt with much of the long-term scrutiny as investigations
into their probe brought up the entrapment issue. After Abscam,
there have been no published accounts of efforts to catch lawmakers
in the act, rather the focus became investigating wrongdoing after
The Keating Five scandal from 1989 implicated five senators in
another corruption probe. Democrats Dennis DeConcini of Arizona,
Donald Riegle of Michigan, John Glenn of Ohio and Alan Cranston
of California, and Republican John McCain of Arizona, were accused
of strong-arming federal officials to back off their investigation
of Charles Keating, former chairman of the Lincoln Savings and
Loan association. In exchange, the senators reportedly received
close to $1.3 million in campaign contributions.
The Senate Ethics Committee concluded that Glenn and McCain's
involvement in the scheme was minimal and dropped the charges
against them. In August 1991, the committee ruled that the other
three senators had acted improperly in interfering with the Federal
Home Loan Banking Board's investigation.
DeConcini and Riegle did not run for re-election in 1994 and
were succeeded by Republican Sens. John Kyl and Spencer Abraham.
House banking scandal
The more recent significant corruption scandals have centered
on abuses of power, as opposed to the bribery, influence-peddling
controversies of the past.
In 1992, many House members were suspected of bouncing checks
from accounts they held at the so-called "House Bank"
-- a loose operation that allowed member of Congress to cash their
checks but kept shoddy records and often were quite delayed in
recording deposits or withdrawals.
Although the lawmakers had broken no laws and many did not even
know they were bouncing checks, several took advantage of the
bank system and many voters viewed the scandal as a blatant abuse
Of the 296 sitting representatives and 59 former members who
had overdrafted their personal accounts in the preceding 39 months,
the House Ethics Committee released a list of the 24 worst abusers.
Twenty were Democrats, although Republican Rep. Tommy Robinson
of Arkansas was the worse offender, with 996 overdrafts.
Congressional Democrats attempted to explain that the scandal
was a problem with the banking system, not their party.
Conservative columnist David Gergen said on the NewsHour at the
time, "[The Democrats] let it get out of control. That's
the critical charge against the Democrats. When you're in power
too long, you become arrogant."
Republican leaders used the scandal to accuse all Democrats of
corruption and abuse of power. Republican Minority Whip Newt Gingrich
of Georgia would make reforming Congress part of his Republican
revolution of 1994 that gave his party a net gain of 54 seats
in Congress and the GOP control of the House for the first time
in 40 years.
With the latest scandal, party leaders are rushing to reform
the institution and its rules.