By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 22, 2007
The abrupt resignations last week of two Republican House members from their sensitive committee assignments have thrust lingering legal and ethics issues back into the limelight, potentially complicating GOP efforts to retake Congress next year.
On successive days, Wednesday and Thursday, Reps. John T. Doolittle (Calif.) and Rick Renzi (Ariz.) disclosed FBI raids on their wives' businesses. The men proclaimed their innocence, but the raids exposed their legal jeopardy. The announcements were only the most recent in a series of developments that have kept the focus on the old ethical and legal clouds that helped chase the Republican Party from power on Capitol Hill.
Two other lawmakers face possible ethics investigations amid allegations that they pressured a U.S. attorney in New Mexico to indict Democrats before last year's fall elections.
Rep. Gary G. Miller (R-Calif.), under investigation by the FBI for a series of land deals, is now facing Democratic ads alleging that he lied about a land sale that he declined to pay taxes on.
Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) still faces FBI scrutiny of his work as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and this month, his campaign filings showed that he has racked up $892,951.69 in legal fees since July. And for the first time, Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) reported significant legal fees -- $15,620.60 -- in his campaign filing this month, as he tries to stave off accusations that he used taxpayer-funded congressional staff and resources to do political work.
"Everybody's kind of a little bit numb," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.). "There's this, 'What else can happen now?' feeling going around here."
The ethics issue burst back into focus with the FBI raids involving Doolittle and Renzi.
Doolittle had been trying to retool his battered image when he disclosed that the FBI had raided his family's Northern Virginia home, where his wife runs her business. Both he and his wife have been tied to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and he has admitted obtaining funds for a defense contractor linked to the bribery conviction of then-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif). Under pressure from GOP leaders, Doolittle quickly gave up his coveted seat on the House Appropriations Committee, while his attorneys said he has done nothing wrong.
Renzi notified House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) that federal investigators had raided the offices of Patriot Insurance Agency, his wife's business, in Sonoita, Ariz. The search was part of an ongoing investigation into Renzi-drafted land-swap legislation that would have enriched a political benefactor. Renzi stepped down from his seat on the sensitive House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence "to avoid any unnecessary distractions on the panel and its critical work," Boehner said.
"I view these actions as the first step in bringing out the truth," Renzi said.
To be sure, Democrats have their own issues to contend with. An aide in the New Orleans office of Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) was subpoenaed last week to testify before a grand jury investigating corruption and bribery allegations, signaling that the inquiry is still ongoing. Earlier this year, Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the departments of Commerce and Justice, was forced to recuse himself from law enforcement funding matters because he is under FBI investigation.
But, for the GOP, the spate of bad news over ethics has clouded its efforts to portray the new Democratic majority as ineffective, while it has helped Democrats stay on the political offensive. Ethics troubles loomed large last year in the Democrats' sweep of Congress. Republicans lost seats in Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, California, Arizona, Ohio, North Carolina and Montana, where ethical lapses were decisive. And Democrats will use the new ethics charges to remind voters why they pushed out the Republicans, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
"It's all a stark reminder to voters about why they don't want to turn power back to a Republican Congress that betrayed the public and used their majority for personal financial gain and to reward special interests," he said.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, was more sanguine. The Democrats' theme of "a culture of corruption" is unlikely to break through to voters in a presidential election year with so much at stake, he said. And individual cases coming into focus in early 2007 will likely be resolved by the fall of 2008. "There's a long time between now and the election," he said.
But Cole conceded that ethics could be a factor in a few individual races. And with the GOP needing 17 seats to recapture the House, losing seats would increase the number of incumbent Democrats the GOP would have to defeat.
The DCCC is interviewing candidates seeking to run against Renzi, who escaped a challenge last year from a high-profile Democrat but still won only 52 percent of the vote. Former military pilot Charlie Brown, who held Doolittle to 49 percent in November, has already filed papers for a rematch and has banked $132,000 in the first quarter for his run.
But Democratic campaign efforts go beyond the subjects of FBI raids. The DCCC has already aired two radio ads raising ethics charges against Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.), who has admitted calling now-fired U.S. Attorney David C. Iglesias before the November elections to inquire about an investigation of voter fraud. Wilson, a perennial Democratic target, eked out a win in November -- by 861 votes.
"Congresswoman Wilson's call to David Iglesias was entirely appropriate, and it's a shame that national Democrats have launched a baseless partisan attack smearing her good name," said Enrique Knell, a Wilson spokesman.
After obtaining footage through a Freedom of Information Act request, the DCCC has aired some of it showing Miller repeatedly pleading with city officials in Monrovia, Calif., to buy 165 acres of his property. Miller made more than $10 million on the 2002 sale, but he sheltered the profits from capital-gains taxes by asserting that the sale was forced under the threat of eminent domain. Repeated calls to Miller's office were not returned yesterday.
And with other Republicans shelling out so much money to lawyers, Democratic political operatives are sure more shoes will drop in investigations that started long before their party took control of Capitol Hill.
"It'll only reinforce why they voted for the Democrats in the first place," Van Hollen said.