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Scandals unveil the seamier side of Washington politics

WASHINGTON—Big money is buying influence in Washington these days on a scale seen rarely, if ever, before.

Consider this: After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, big-ticket defense contracts doubled, federal spending on those contracts jumped by $100 billion—and the number of lobbyists signed up to represent defense-industry clients spiked from 900 to more than 1,650.

In what would be an audacious abuse of that nexus of money, power and influence, two defense contractors now stand accused of bribing Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif.—a power on the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee—in exchange for top feed at the Pentagon trough. Cunningham resigned from Congress last week after pleading guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes, including a Rolls-Royce and a $7,200 antique Louis-Philippe commode.

That case and other high-profile corruption investigations under way have enormous implications for next year's congressional elections. At stake may be whether Republicans retain control of Congress.

While Cunningham clearly crossed a legal line by trading legislative favors for personal gain, his case spotlights the intersection of money and politics in Washington, where most lawmakers dance along a vaguer line that divides political donations from less-explicit paybacks.

The investigations into questionable links among lawmakers, contractors and lobbyists threaten to ensnare more members of Congress. Already, widely reported instances of lobbyist-financed resort visits, golf outings, fine dining and million-dollar payoffs have hung a cloud of scandal over Washington.

"The closest analogy I can come up with is the Gilded Age," congressional scholar Norman Ornstein said, referring to the late 1800s, when tycoons such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie created giant "trusts" built on emerging industries in oil, steel and railroads—and bent Washington to their will.

Lawmakers and lobbyists need each other for government to function. Lobbyists provide expertise and often raise issues that require attention. But the past five years have seen a sharp rise in lobbying that's in direct proportion to Congress's spending ever more of taxpayers' money.

Lawmakers increasingly load up spending bills with special projects for the folks back home. This year's highway bill alone had 6,371 special-project "earmarks" totaling more than $24 billion.

At the same time, more and more lobbyists work this trend. From 2000 to 2004, the number of firms registered to lobby "appropriators" who control spending in Congress almost doubled, from 1,865 to 3,523.

Similarly, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks prompted dramatic spending increases on defense and homeland security—and lobbyists flocked after it.

"People were chasing what was perceived to be an almost unlimited amount of money," said Anthony Townes, a political scientist at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and the author of "Total Lobbying: What Lobbyists Want (and How They Try to Get It)."

Lobbyists know how to cultivate lawmakers. They shower them with campaign contributions. They buy expensive tables at political fundraisers. Spotting a lawmaker the occasional five-star dinner is all in a day's work. All are typical—and widely acceptable—methods of currying favor in Washington.

Cunningham's case exposed these relations at a seamier level. Other lawmakers who got contributions from the two contractors who are accused of bribing Cunningham—Mitchell Wade and Brent Wilkes—are under investigation.

Today's ethical scrutiny doesn't stop there.

_ The Justice Department is investigating former uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose partner pleaded guilty last month to charges that he conspired to bribe an unidentified congressman. That probe could splatter other lawmakers, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., and Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio. All four deny any wrongdoing.

_ DeLay is under indictment in Texas on charges of conspiracy to evade campaign-finance laws. He's fighting the charge, saying it's politically motivated.

_ The Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department are investigating Senate Republican leader Bill Frist's sale of stock in HCA Inc., a hospital chain that his family founded, shortly before its stock price plunged. Frist, of Tennessee, says he did nothing improper and is cooperating.

The Abramoff case has the most potential to capsize the Republican Party because of his extensive ties to lawmakers, especially DeLay. It also illustrates the sheer magnitude of money involved in Washington lobbying.

Abramoff's work on behalf of Indian tribes seeking federal favors for casino gambling licenses alone brought him some $80 million. He and a former partner have been indicted on fraud charges in connection with their purchase of a Florida-based line of casino cruise ships.

Separately, Michael Scanlon, another Abramoff partner and a former spokesman for DeLay, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the Indian tribes, and his promise to testify for the prosecution sent a rumble through Congress.

That investigation also ensnared David Safavian, a former Bush White House procurement director, who was arrested in September on charges of lying to investigators about his links to Abramoff.

Democrats hope to exploit these cases in next year's congressional elections. When Cunningham pleaded guilty, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California promptly issued a statement tarring the entire Republican Party:

"This offense is just the latest example of the culture of corruption that pervades the Republican-controlled Congress, which ignores the needs of the American people to serve wealthy special interests and their cronies," she charged.

The Montana Democratic Party recently began airing ads citing Burns' acceptance of donations from Abramoff.

The public is growing increasingly suspicious. A Harris Poll released Thursday found that 90 percent of Americans think that big companies have too much power and influence in Washington, and 74 percent think the same of lobbyists.

The out-of-power party blasting incumbents as corrupt isn't a new tactic. Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., played a similar card in 1992, citing widespread House Bank overdrafts by Democratic lawmakers as evidence that they were arrogant and out of touch. His party gained 10 seats in the House of Representatives even as Democrat Bill Clinton won the presidency.

But whether Democrats can play off today's ethical mess as successfully is uncertain. Many more lawmakers were involved then, and the Abramoff case isn't as clear-cut as a congressman kiting a check.

"The difference between today and then is today's scandals right now don't come down to the individual district level," said David Redlawsk, a political scientist at the University of Iowa who's studied the effect of political corruption on voters' decisions. "While Democrats can say `look at these corrupt Republicans,' individuals still give their own representatives a lot of support until they see a reason not to."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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