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Congress Faces Multiple Criminal Probes

By LARRY MARGASAK
The Associated Press
Saturday, May 20, 2006; 8:40 PM

WASHINGTON -- For the first time since the Abscam scandal a quarter-century ago, multiple lawmakers face criminal and ethics investigations that are tarnishing Congress, already low on public approval.

Three separate bribery investigations by the Justice Department were bad enough news for lawmakers. But the woes only increased last week when the House ethics committee broke a 16-month partisan gridlock and announced investigations into the same matters.

"We have an entire generation who imagines their member of Congress in an orange jumpsuit," said Paul Light, a New York University professor of public service, referring to the common prison uniform. "It's like members of Congress don't have any shame."

Six House members and a senator were convicted in Abscam, the bribery scandal that became public in early 1980 and ended a golden, post-Watergate era of congressional reforms.

Instead of dwelling on new laws to regulate campaign donations, provide greater access to government records and protect privacy, the public thought about Abscam.

The name came from Abdul-scam, after the FBI established a phony business _ Abdul Enterprises _ and had "representatives" offer bribes to lawmakers.

In a forewarning of what could happen now, Congress also extracted its own punishments in Abscam. One lawmaker was expelled and two resigned as they faced expulsion. The voters defeated the others.

Polls conducted recently and at the time of Abscam scandal show similar results, indicating that corruption plays a major role in the public's loss of confidence in Congress.

An AP-Ipsos poll conducted at the beginning of this month showed a 71 percent disapproved of the way Congress is handling its job, while only 25 percent of those surveyed approved.

A Gallup Poll in June 1980 showed a 56 percent disapproval and 25 percent approval. A CBS News/New York Times poll a month later had the disapproval rate of 51 percent and approval at 32 percent.

Last Wednesday, leaders of the House ethics committee announced full-blown investigations of Reps. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and William Jefferson, D-La.

Ney's former chief of staff has pleaded guilty to conspiring to corrupt the congressman on behalf of Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist at the center of the influence-peddling probe that has gripped Capitol Hill for months.

Separately, a technology company executive has pleaded guilty to bribing Jefferson and a former Jefferson aide has pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting bribery of the congressman.

FBI agents searched Jefferson's congressional office Saturday evening, said FBI spokeswoman Debra Weierman. It was not clear what agents were looking for and Weierman said she could provide no additional details because the affidavit supporting the search warrant was sealed.

Ney and Jefferson have both denied wrongdoing.

The committee leaders also announced a preliminary inquiry into whether other House members were bribed by the defense contractors who corrupted former Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California. He pleaded guilty and is serving an eight-year sentence.

By investigating Ney, the ethics committee can learn more about Abramoff's favors for lawmakers and what help those lawmakers gave the lobbyist's clients. Abramoff has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with federal investigators.

In addition, in a guilty plea, Ney's former chief of staff enumerated 16 actions he said his old boss took on behalf of Abramoff clients. Neil Volz acknowledged he conspired to corrupt Ney, his staff and other members of Congress with trips, free tickets, meals, jobs for relatives and fundraising events.

Light, the NYU professor, said he doubts the ethics investigations will lower the poll numbers because those numbers cannot go down much more. But he said the committee's decision will have an affect.

"It confirms to the American public their worst fears about what motivates members of Congress," he said.

Light said there is no indication that the current Congress will follow the latest bribery scandal with reforms.

"We haven't seen, in response to this scandal, any major legislation coming forward that would prevent this type of scandal in the future," he said.

© 2006 The Associated Press