Days in the Life of Jay Kim in the U.S. House of Correction
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 22, 1998; Page A23
Jay Kim has become Congress's disreputable uncle. He's always there, but no one wants to discuss him.
"It's like an awkward family dinner," said one Republican lawmaker, asking not to be identified. "You just don't talk about it."
Even Kim's fiercest allies describe their colleague's predicament-the California Republican is restricted to the halls of Congress and his Fairfax apartment as part of his sentence for accepting more than $250,000 in illegal foreign and corporate contributions-delicately.
"It's an awkward situation for everyone. I'm also the first to admit the guy made mistakes," said Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.). But he added quickly, "His plight has not diminished his effectiveness here in Congress."
Democrats too are oddly quiet when it comes to Kim. "We think he's more of a liability if they continue to allow him to be an active player in the party," explained one leadership aide, adding that Kim's troubles could help Democrats win his seat this fall.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), who is facing an ethics investigation himself, is not particularly eager to talk about why he and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) gave Kim a plum appointment on the group negotiating the colossal highway bill. Shuster emphasized that Gingrich actually made the decision to select Kim, whom he described as "a very active member."
And what strengths does Kim bring to the bargaining table?
"He's a very active member," Shuster repeated.
In fact, Kim is diligently going about his business, shuttling regularly between his office to the House floor so he can maintain his perfect, largely conservative voting record and an appearance of normalcy. The only difference between Kim and other legislators is the electronic ankle bracelet he wears under his suit pants, so federal probation officers can track his movements.
In the past 200 years, at least two House members have kept their seats while serving in prison: Rep. Thomas Lane (D-Mass.) went to jail from May 7 to Sept. 7, 1956, for tax evasion and Rep. Matthew Lyon (R-Vt.) was imprisoned for violating the Sedition Act in 1798 but returned to Congress after a mob broke him out of jail. No lawmaker has served in Congress after being sentenced since the creation of the ethics committee in 1968, former House counsel Stanley Brand said.
According to the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, Kim has admitted to committing the largest amount of campaign violations ever by a member of Congress. More than one-third of the contributions to his 1992 primary campaign, where he eked out a victory by 889 votes, were illegal.
"Jay Kim probably stole a congressional election in 1992 by this fraudulent campaign financing scheme. If the House is serious about the meaning of elections and democracy, they'll expel him, and soon," said Gary Ruskin, who directs the public watchdog group Congressional Accountability Project. "In my view, Jay Kim's presence cheapens the moral authority of every other member there."
Kim is undeterred in his bid for reelection, even though he originally pledged to serve only three terms and is barred by his sentence from traveling to his district just east of Los Angeles before the June 2 primary. He faces two primary opponents and a national Republican leadership that has signaled it would be just as happy if he loses.
Meanwhile, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct recently announced it has expanded its investigation of his activities to include all four of his elections as well as whether he lied to the committee in January.
Then there is Kim's recently estranged wife, June, who is cooperating with the ethics committee and seems intent on informing voters of the shortcomings of her husband of 36 years.
"He is a congressman. He should be clean. He should be a role model," argued June Kim, who also pleaded guilty to accepting illegal campaign donations last year and who has filed for divorce. "In fact, he is the most crime-committing person I know."
But the 59-year-old Kim is nothing if not resilient-as well as audacious. He recently sent a mailing to the voters of his heavily Asian and Hispanic district emblazoned with the image of a dead woman and child, alluding to his family's flight during the Korean War. "Has his dream become a nightmare?" the mailer asks. "It's up to the voters in the 41st District." He has also begun seeking campaign donations by advertising in Korean-language newspapers, touting his connection to Korean President Kim Dae Jung.
Rep. Kim would not be interviewed, saying he was busy at work on his cherished goal: getting transportation money for his district. While many other lawmakers return home every weekend to attend town hall meetings and spend time with their families, Kim has been bunkered in his Cannon building office, reading the highway bill page by page to prepare himself for negotiations with the Senate.
Kim, after all, has a staggering number of projects he must protect from budget cutters. A statement issued by his office lists 10 projects earmarked for Kim's district, ranging from a $3.8 million Yorba Linda Metrolink station and parking lot to a $1.25 billion program to designate the Alameda Corridor East as a national corridor. Kim founded a company that designed roads and bridges before winning a seat on the Diamond Bar City Council in 1990. He moved up to mayor a year later and won his first congressional race in 1992.
"All my life is spent on civil engineering," he noted in one interview. "I have been serving on this committee a long time."
Kim has one other goal: never missing a vote. While other lawmakers are known for mingling with their colleagues on the House floor during votes, according to Republicans, Kim is famous for constantly inquiring of staff and members alike when the next one will occur.
His lawyers emphasized this point when they unsuccessfully asked a federal judge to suspend his sentence until after the June 2 primary. For all Kim's transgressions, the problem he presents is, who's really being punished?
"If he's entitled to be a member, he's entitled to the full panoply of the rights of a member," Brand said. "What you've done is disenfranchise his constituents."
Rather than debating points of law, Kim is sticking to his routine. A fifth-degree black belt in tae kwon do, he works out regularly in the House gym and drinks a cup of coffee a day followed by ginseng tea, then gets down to work.
To seek some quiet, according his spokesman, P.J. O'Neil, Kim has moved from a one-bedroom apartment in Arlington to one in Fairfax.
Kim is temporarily banished from his California home overlooking the San Gabriel Valley, which features a pool and is in a cul-de-sac within a gated community named "the Country."
Still living there is June Kim, who may be her husband's greatest threat. She alleges that the congressman was involved in an even more elaborate scheme to violate campaign finance laws and to deceive the ethics committee.
"We don't know exactly what her motivations are," O'Neill said. "They are estranged, but they still may be able to work things out in their relationship. Under her own admission, she is seeking medical attention right now."
June Kim says she is amazed that her husband remains in Congress.
"It's really frustrating that our law is not tough enough to get him out right away," she said. "He's humiliated us enough."
Still, California Republicans, including Rep. Jerry Lewis, say Kim will continue to defy the predictions of his political demise.
"Jay, I expect, will be with us for a long time," Lewis said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company