With Ethics in Question, GOP Seeks Answers

By Shailagh Murray and Chris Cillizza
Sunday, April 23, 2006

The ethical furnace keeps getting hotter for House Republicans. Even Rep. Tom Reynolds, who heads the GOP reelection effort, is feeling some heat.

The four-term New Yorker is being targeted by a liberal watchdog group, New Yorkers for a Cleaner Congress, for taking "more lobbyist-funded luxury trips outside of western New York in the last three years than he has returned home to western New York." The group singles out jaunts to Pebble Beach, Calif., by Reynolds that have totaled $205,185 over five years.

Reynolds's office dismissed the criticism as politically motivated. "Just like the national Democratic Party, Jack Davis and his friends can't put forth any positive ideas, so instead they have to run negative ads and spread misinformation," said L.D. Platt, spokesman for Reynolds, referring to his boss's Democratic opponent.

Republicans are increasingly nervous about their ability to hold the House in November, and not only because of the sour national mood over the war in Iraq and rising gas prices. Increasingly, local media and political opponents are putting the ethics of GOP House candidates under a microscope.

A Youngstown newspaper found that Charles Blasdel, the GOP front-runner in an open-seat race in Ohio and a financial adviser by profession, has about $50,000 in delinquent business taxes. Rick O'Donnell, who is seeking an open seat in Colorado, has drawn fire from Denver newspapers for including Environmental Protection Agency administrator Stephen L. Johnson's title on a fundraising invitation -- a violation of the Hatch Act. The event drew oil and gas officials with business before the EPA.

Ten-term Pennsylvania Rep. Curt Weldon's close ties to lobbyists are getting a close look, while Rep. John Sweeney of New York has drawn flak for taking a ski trip to Utah with lobbyists.

Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee, which Reynolds leads, said the Duke Cunningham corruption case appears to have stirred a hornet's nest. "Anytime a member of Congress is going to jail, it's news," Forti said.

He noted that some Democrats are also under scrutiny. Among them are Rep. William Jefferson (La.), the subject of a federal bribery investigation; Rep. Cynthia McKinney (Ga.), accused of striking a Capitol police officer; and Rep. Alan Mollohan (W.Va.), the ranking Democrat on the House ethics panel, who stepped down from his post Friday amid allegations of improper financial disclosure.

Lieberman Takes Challenge Seriously

Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) is getting serious about his primary challenge from wealthy businessman Ned Lamont.

Last week, Lieberman launched his first media campaign in more than a decade with two 60-second ads that confront his controversial and continuing support for the war in Iraq.

"I already know that some of you feel passionately against my position on Iraq," Lieberman says in one ad. "I hope we can still have a dialogue and find common ground on all the issues where we do agree."

Both ads, which were produced by media consultant Carter Eskew, seek to put Lieberman's support for the war into a broader context, pointing out that he has fought against the Republican-backed Medicare and energy bills, and is a supporter of abortion rights. "You may not always agree with him, but you can depend on his integrity, his compassion and his willingness to listen and hear all sides," the ad's narrator says of Lieberman.

Sean Smith, Lieberman's campaign manager, said the commercials reflect the reality that "we have a primary, and we are taking it seriously."

But, Lieberman's decision to go up with ads defending his stance on the war illustrates the effect that Lamont's candidacy -- and the unrest among the state's liberal voters it symbolizes -- has had on the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee. Lieberman was greeted with boos during a party gathering last month, and did himself no favors recently when he refused to rule out a bid as an independent if he lost in the Aug. 8 primary.

Lieberman's commercials hit the airwaves in advance of the state's May 20 endorsement convention in which he and Lamont will vie for the support of approximately 1,600 delegates. Whoever wins a majority gains the formal support of the party, but any other candidate who receives support from 15 percent of the delegates earns a place on the primary ballot, as well.

The seat is likely to stay in Democratic hands. No top-tier GOP candidates have emerged.

Immigration and the Airwaves

A surge in voter interest in immigration -- the issue ranked second after the Iraq war as voters' most pressing issue in a recent Gallup poll -- coincides with a new round of immigration-related political ads. Jim Pederson, a Democrat challenging Sen. Jon Kyl in Arizona, takes aim at his GOP opponent's focus on border security and enforcement. "Kyl actually believes that illegal immigrants will turn themselves in to be deported," Pederson says in the spot.

The Democratic and Republican national committees have taken out competing ads on Spanish-language radio stations.

The Republican ad, which ran in Arizona and Nevada, accused congressional Democrats of seeking "to treat millions of hardworking immigrants as felons while President Bush and Republican leaders work for legislation that will protect our borders and honor our immigrants." House Republicans are leading the effort to toughen criminal penalties related to illegal immigration.

Democrats followed in Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona with their own over-the-top spots that asserted the GOP wants to "criminalize immigrants, families, doctors, and even churches just for giving communion." None of the bills before Congress mention the word "communion."

"The issue is on the forefront of the minds of Hispanics and immigrants in the country right now," said Adam J. Segal, director of the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University. "Hearing these ads will likely cause them to recommit themselves to sending their message . . . louder and stronger and perhaps even longer than they thought."

Staff researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.

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