Q & A with congressional expert
Online NewsHour spoke with Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar
at the American Enterprise Institute, about the congressional
corruption investigation and the political implications on Capitol
What sparked the congressional
It started really with [House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay [R-Texas]
and some of this goes back almost a decade. It goes back to the
beginning of the K Street Project, as it was called, when the
Republicans took a majority in the House of Representatives. They
started this project, to do something that was perfectly understandable.
They had not been in the majority for 40 years and most of the
positions in the lobbying, public relations, legal world that
intersected with Congress were dominated by Democrats who had
been in the majority.
And they wanted some share of those positions. But it soon morphed
into something that was not quite so benign. The beginnings of
all of this, in many ways, I believe, occurred in the mid-'90s
when the Electronics Industry Association, a trade association
for the industry, needed a new president, looked around and picked
Dave McCurdy, a conservative Democrat, former member of Congress
The Republicans in Congress were very unhappy; they'd had their
own candidate: Bill Paxon, Republican representative from New
York. And they expressed their displeasure with this choice after
some period of time trying to strong-arm them into picking the
person they wanted. After the choice was made, they held up two
treaties that the Electronics Industry Association wanted for
some period of time to show them that this was going to have consequences.
Holding up treaties in the United States for a private gain,
in effect to put one of your people in power, is not appropriate.
Tom DeLay, who has masterminded this approach, was rebuked by
the Ethics Committee and it became a story. It didn't go anywhere,
it didn't mean much; it was an isolated event. But as more events
began to occur and as the K Street Project, which really expanded
so that before long Republicans were trying to get not just the
top positions in trade associations, companies or lobbying firms
with Republicans instead of Democrats but in some cases trying
try to get the Democrats that were there fired, making sure that
it was specific people going into these places.
It took on a different coloration and it provided an atmosphere,
an atmosphere in which a guy like Jack Abramoff, with strong Republican
credentials could come in and see an opportunity to make extraordinary
sums of money and play out this project.
That really began, once again, in the mid-1990s and it built
toward the explosion that has occurred in the last year.
Now with the indictment of Tom Delay on other charges, after
four separate rebukes by the Ethics Committee over the last decade,
after the guilty plea to a number of felony charges by Mr. Abramoff,
his associate in the business Mike Scanlon, who had been a top
staffer for Delay and the clear implication of other members of
Congress, several other people who had been staff director for
Delay, and people even in the administration.
That's now become significant enough as a scandal that it's causing
enormous changes in the ranks of Congress and a lot of panic among
What is the scope of the investigation
Well, what we know of the investigation is that it's being handled
by the Public Integrity section of the Justice Department which
has a long-standing reputation of independence and pursuing questions
of corruption among public officials aggressively. They've been
doing this for some years. It's occurring on many fronts. The
main set of issues revolve around Indian tribes with gambling
interests who gave fees to Mr. Abramoff and who also contributed
money to foundations, campaigns and organizations that he favored
to the tune of over $80 million, much of it which was just sloshing
around Capitol Hill and Washington.
But it also includes the Northern Mariana Islands which have
garment manufacturing firms, often called sweatshops, very low
paid labor under difficult conditions, close to indentured servitude
but who are able for a variety of reasons to put on their garments
"made in America" and not have to worry about quotas.
That was his client and a lot of shenanigans involved there including
trips over there. Other clients including Internet gambling resources.
All of them have really begun to spread out to include members
of Congress, and there maybe a large number of them. We know several
of them that have been targeted, one in specific that was mentioned
in each of these plea agreements, and that has been identified
as Bob Ney, the chairman of the House Administration Committee.
We also had another indictment, the initial indictment, of Mr.
Abramoff and one of his partners was over the purchase of gambling
boats off the coast of Florida, which also resulted in the gang
land style of slaying of the person from whom he and his partner
purchased the boats.
So this extends pretty widely and we've got the chief procurement
officer in the White House, former chief procurement officer,
also indicted on the charges of lying to investigators and obstruction
of justice. And we have several officials in the Interior Department
under close investigation.
All following on the heels of another prominent member of Congress,
Randy "Duke" Cunningham of San Diego, who left office
after admitting to taking $2.4 million worth of bribes for steering
defense contracts. And he apparently for a time when he was negotiating
this deal wore a wire, a hidden microphone, and we don't know
who he talked to.
So the fear around Capitol Hill is that this could extend to
a large number of people and go beyond Abramoff to the very tight
relationships that have developed over the last decade or more
between lobbyists, members of Congress and other public officials
where they've gotten all kinds of perks and in return have done
things that in the past may have been routine, but now could be
linked to a direct pay-for-play kind of scheme.
We just don't know how far it could extend but it could extend
Do you have the names of the people
that have been indicted to this date?
In terms of the members of Congress, we know some who have been
prominently featured in the press. And that includes some who
like John Doolittle of California whose wife was given employment
by a lobbying organization, the Alexander Strategy Group run by
a former chief of staff of DeLay's Ed Buckham, along with another
former chief of staff Tony Rudy. Tony Rudy has himself been mentioned
in some of these indictments and the Alexander Strategy Group
just closed because they were losing all of their clients. There
are strong links there.
We also know that Ralph Reed, former director of the conservative
Christian Coalition, a former top official in the Bush campaign,
now running for lieutenant governor of Georgia, got over $4 million
in fees to help block one gambling casino that an Indian tribe
wanted to keep from being a competitor. And while he says he had
no idea the money was coming from gambling interests, there are
e-mails suggesting an elaborate way of shuffling the money around
so that its source wouldn't be identified in which he participated.
And Grover Norquist, one of the godfathers of the conservative
movement here and one of the intellectual fathers of the K Street
Project who also got substantial fees in the gambling area.
How does Duke Cunningham play
into this larger corruption scandal?
Well we actually know that if Duke Cunningham acted alone and
just developed a relationship with a fledgling defense contractor
that basically saw an great opportunity to get a $100 million
or $200 million of contracts from the Defense Department by giving
a couple of million to Duke Cunningham, he also had some, less
direct ties to a number of the figures involved here.
It may be possible to connect dots all over the place. What Cunningham
represents though is, I think, another phenomenon here, there
are always going to be bad apples, people who get seduced by making
some easy money on the side, sometimes very large sums of money.
We've had another member of Congress, in this case a Democrat,
who has now been brought into the public spotlight, William Jefferson
of Louisiana, former staffer of his just cut a plea deal in which
he said that he had worked with Jefferson take bribes involving
countries and businesses in Africa.
A part of it is this culture of earmarking. The process of having
members allowed to designate sizable sums of money into the tens
and hundreds of millions of dollars to specific projects or for
grants or for contracts has spread immensely in the last decade,
gone up more than tenfold in many cases.
The most obvious example being the transportation bill where
there are almost 7,000 of these separate earmarks totaling about
$29 billion. When individual members of Congress have that much
power over an individual contract, then you've got to expect that
some of them are going to be approached by those who want to take
advantage of this, get some money from the federal government
and who see an investment of a million bucks in a member of Congress
to get a hundred million back as being a pretty reasonable one.
And you'll see members of Congress who, in some cases, will shop
around the possibility of steering a contract at a particular
place if they get something in return.
So there's a larger cultural set of issues here about the culture
on Capitol Hill that may have encouraged more scandalous behavior.
Is this scandal unfairly portrayed
as a Republican scandal or is it much broader than that?
As I mentioned, Bill Jefferson. We're not just talking Republicans
here but we're talking predominantly Republicans. One thing we
know is that of the $1.7 million in campaign contributions that
Jack Abramoff, his clients, his associates, his cronies, his friends,
gave to over 200 members of Congress, 64 percent of the money
went to Republicans. And all of his personal money went to Republicans.
Most of his ties were to Republicans.
They were in the majority, even if there are some Democrats.
It's likely that the fallout is going to hit the majority party
more. That's just what happened with the House Bank scandal in
the mid-1990s; it hit Democrats and Republicans but the Democrats
had been in charge for a long time and they were the ones blamed
What is the role of Jack Abramoff
in the larger scandal?
Jack Abramoff may have been the logical extension of
the so-called K Street Project. But this was a lobbyist who says
now that what he did, everybody else did, but nobody did it in
quite the same way.
Jack Abramoff discovered that because we have such a large federal
government, $2.4 trillion budget, that you could go to potential
clients and get fees much larger than the typical lobbying firm
was able to command, not just a handsome hourly rate for the lobbyist,
but tens of millions of dollars.
And you could get these clients who thought that you could open
up the keys to government for them, in part because you had friends
in the inner-reaches of government who were willing to open up
those keys in return for money, campaign contributions, lavish
meals, and trips and other considerations including possibly putting
spouses on the payroll, that you could also get these clients
to channel money to political campaigns, organizations and even
nonprofit groups that you favored, some of which that money could
then be channeled back to you and your friends in public life
It was a kind of self-perpetuating scheme because much of the
money went back into running campaigns. So you could keep your
people in office, keep the power and keep it going. That has a
breadth and an open, abrasive, aggressive venality to it that
in my judgment, is unlike anything we've seen overall since the
Gilded Age, the robber barons in the 1870s.
How different are Abramoff's lobbying
practices compared to other lobbyists?
I know other lobbyists who are very well-connected.
I know lobbyists who can get their phone called returned immediately,
many of them on both sides of the isle but in many cases in particular
on one side. I know other Republicans, I know other Democrats.
But I don't know anywhere there's any sense in the process of
doing this, they bilked their clients the way that Abramoff did.
And he did that of tens of millions of dollars. And basically
gave the members of Congress and the staffers with which he was
associated lavish gifts and perks in return.
What are key differences between
legal lobbying and illegal lobbying in this specific corruption
There is a very fine line and a difficult one to interpret.
When you're talking about campaign contributions coming in to
members of Congress and then they turn around and do things, which
in most cases they can say, perfectly legitimately, they are giving
me money because I already believe in what they believe and that
shows in my own behavior. And if it looks like the money came
in and then I acted in a fashion that would benefit them, that's
just a coincidence.
It's always been difficult to prove that direct link. But in
this case, we have now, thousands of e-mails and direct testimony
from people in the room saying that there was a link between the
campaign money and the behavior.
And as long as you've got money in politics and as long as you've
got consultants who work in campaigns and then go and lobby those
members of Congress, you're going to have a tension over what's
allowable, what's legitimate, what moves into bribery.
Where in this investigation have
prosecutors said that they stepped over that line?
They believe that there was a direct link between money
and favors given, not just campaign money. Lavish trips to Scotland,
to St. Andrew's where the greens fees were $5,000 a day, free
meals and drinks at an expensive restaurant that Mr. Abramoff
owned called Signatures as well as campaign cash and maybe even
as I've suggested, putting spouses or other family members on
the payroll of a related organization so you could get money to
them in that indirect way.
Along with for Mr. Cunningham, things like having an interest
buy your house for $700,000 more than the market value then turn
right around and sell it at that loss but just to give you in
effect, a $700,000 bonus.
Those are things that they believe that they can nail down and
prove in each of these cases. And if you can do that with the
testimony of the lobbyist themselves who were in the room and
who can say, member of Congress X, we told him, you write this
letter, insert this in the congressional record, steer this contract
in this direction and you will get these things in return. And
he said yes. And then you've got proof that he did get those things.
You've got a pretty strong case.
How are House and Senate lobbying
rules enforced and what are the penalties if they're broken?
There are ethics rules and there are laws. Of course
in this case, we're dealing with violation of the laws, federal
corruption laws and others. There are rules and the rules not
only include a number of specific things but a general rule that
you act in an ethical fashion.
Those are supposed to be policed by House and Senate ethics committees
which have done next to nothing for many, many years. And which
have now delayed so long in investigating the obvious, public
questions raised about a number of members of Congress that now
that the indictments and the plea bargains have taken place that
clearly extend to members of Congress, they say, well we can't
do anything while there's a criminal investigation going on. So
the ethics procedures don't work very well.
And rules involving travel paid by private interests have clearly
been abused here, sometimes with money channeled from lobbyists,
which is illegal and unethical, through nonprofit organizations
which have not been illegal and unethical, that they're going
to move to tighten up those rules as well.
Has there been talk of changing
specific lobbying rules?
Yes, there is a lot of talk, there are bills out there.
Those bills were mostly introduced some months back by Democrats.
And the Republicans running Congress opposed them and tried as
much as they could to ignore them. But now they've embraced them.
And these are bills; the first one was put together by Rahm Emanuel
of Illinois joined by Marty Meehan of Massachusetts, with one
Republican who's been a long-time reformer, Chris Shays of Connecticut.
In the Senate we have separate bills, a parallel one to the Meehan-Emanuel
bill by Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and another bill without
quite as much breadth or tougher penalties by Sen. John McCain.
But now we're seeing Speaker [Dennis] Hastert basically empower
the Rules Committee Chairman of the House David Dreier to come
up with their own set of reforms.
We've got some other reforms that go beyond lobbying to try and
deal with some of the more core issues of how the House itself
is run. Which has also been I think a part of this problem creating
a culture where the rules don't matter; you can bend and break
How big a deal is this lobbying
scandal in the grand scheme of corruption scandals?
My own judgment is that this could be the biggest one
that we have seen in our lifetimes. It goes beyond something like
Abscam, for example, which was a sting operation involving a bunch
of separate members. This may involve a more institutional corruption
scheme that could have great resonance.
What are the differences between
the investigation in the House and the Justice Department investigation?
The Justice Department is really aimed at criminal
penalties that will result in jail terms for a substantial number
of people. In the House and the Senate there is no significant
investigation going on now. Eventually it will have to I think
come back to, for those people who may not get indicted, at least
some penalties within Congress for violating ethics that could
range from letters of rebuke to reprimand, censure or even expulsion.
That happened, all of those things with Abscam. It may happen
this time. But among the reforms that really need to be considered
are reforms of the ethics process, which are badly needed