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Unfit for Majority Leader

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The videotape is grainy, dark and devastating. The congressman and the FBI undercover agents -- the congressman thinks they represent an Arab sheik willing to pay $50,000 to get immigration papers -- are talking business in the living room of a secretly wired Washington townhouse.

Two other congressmen in on the deal "do expect to be taken care of," the lawmaker says. But for the time being -- and he says repeatedly that he might change his mind and take money down the road -- he'd rather trade his help for investment in his district, maybe a hefty deposit in the bank of a political supporter who's done him favors.

"I'm not interested -- at this point," he says of the dangled bribe. "You know, we do business for a while, maybe I'll be interested, maybe I won't, you know." Indeed, he acknowledges, even though he needs to be careful -- "I expect to be in the [expletive] leadership of the House," he notes -- the money's awfully tempting. "It's hard for me to say, just the hell with it."

This is John Murtha, incoming House speaker Nancy Pelosi's choice to be her majority leader, snared but not charged in the Abscam probe in 1980. "The Democrats intend to lead the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history," Pelosi pledged on election night. Five days later she wrote Murtha a letter endorsing his bid to become her No. 2.

Not the most promising start.

For years Murtha has relied on the Abscam bottom line to argue that the case is not a problem for him: He wasn't indicted. But he was named a co-conspirator in the bribery scheme. The feckless House ethics committee didn't take action against him, though the outside investigator it hired quit in disgust after the panel rejected his recommendation to file misconduct charges.

"I am the guy that didn't take the money," Murtha said this summer when his opponent raised the issue.

Yes, but: He's the guy who, brought into the deal by two other House members -- Frank Thompson (D-N.J.) and John Murphy (D-N.Y.) -- agreed to meet with men offering money in return for official action. He's the guy who knew these two colleagues expected a payoff and even vouched for them with the would-be bribers ("Both of them are solid.").

He's the guy who, when offered a bribe, still wanted to do a deal. "I'm delighted to do business with him and do every goddamn thing I can within bounds, you know, so I don't get myself in jail, in order to get him into the country and whatever needs to be done," he says on the video, unearthed by the conservative American Spectator. (You can watch at http://www.spectator.org/.) He's the guy who -- as a member of the House ethics committee-- did nothing to stop the scheme.

Sorry, but I'm not buying Murtha's argument that he's the victim of a "Swift-boating attack" over "unfounded allegations that occurred 26 years ago." On its own, Murtha's Abscam conduct is disqualifying.

Even if it weren't, though, everything in Murtha's post-Abscam life is of a piece with the back-scratching, dealmaking style on display in the video. In a story last month, the New York Times described how Murtha has operated "a political trading post" in a back corner -- the Murtha corner, it's called -- of the House floor, where Democrats and Republicans alike come to get Murtha's blessing for earmarks or his help on close votes. As Pennsylvania Democrat Paul Kanjorski told the Times, "nobody ever leaves completely disappointed."

Murtha is one of 12 Democrats who voted against the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. He's one of four who killed a strong Democratic ethics package earlier this year. He is a one-man earmarking factory whose beneficiaries have included a lobbying firm that employed his brother and another founded by a former top aide.

The biggest puzzle, and biggest disappointment, in all this is Pelosi, who was pitch-perfect in her first several days as speaker-elect. Now comes this lose-lose move.

If she gets her way and helps Murtha win a come-from-behind victory against Maryland's Steny Hoyer in tomorrow's leadership election, she's buying herself -- and the Democratic caucus -- endless news stories about Murtha's ethics. If, as he says, Hoyer has the votes, Pelosi has made herself look weak within the caucus -- not a smart move for any new leader, and certainly not for the first woman in the job. Perhaps the late timing and measured phrasing of Pelosi's endorsement were meant to ensure that it would have little impact. If so, Pelosi failed to recognize that once she weighed in, the vote for majority leader would inevitably be seen as a gauge of her clout.

I wrote a few weeks back that Pelosi's first test as speaker would be whether she picks Florida's Alcee Hastings -- who was removed from his federal judgeship for agreeing to take a bribe -- to head the intelligence committee. As it turns out, I was wrong. Pelosi's first test was how to handle Murtha. Whatever happens tomorrow, she flunked. Whether she'll get another failing grade on Hastings remains to be seen.

marcusr@washpost.com

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