WASHINGTON—The new chief of the FBI's Criminal Division, which is swamped with public corruption cases, says the bureau is ramping up its ability to catch crooked politicians and might run an undercover sting on Congress.
Assistant FBI Director James Burrus called the bureau's public corruption program "a sleeping giant that we've awoken," and predicted the nation will see continued emphasis in that area "for many, many, many years to come."
So much evidence of wrongdoing is surfacing in the nation's capital that Burrus recently committed to adding a fourth 15- to 20-member public corruption squad to the FBI's Washington field office.
In the past year, former Republican Reps. Duke Cunningham and Bob Ney have pleaded guilty to corruption charges. FBI agents are investigating about a dozen other members of Congress, including as many as three senators. The Justice Department also is expected to begin seeking indictments soon after a massive FBI investigation of the Alaska Legislature.
If conditions warrant, Burrus said, he wouldn't balk at urging an undercover sting like the famed Abscam operation in the late 1970s in which a U.S. senator and six House members agreed on camera to take bribes from FBI agents posing as Arab sheikhs.
"We look for those opportunities a lot," Burrus said, using words rarely heard at the bureau over the last quarter century. "I would do it on Capitol Hill. I would do it in any state legislature. ... If we could do an undercover operation, and it would get me better evidence, I'd do it in a second."
Philip Heymann, who oversaw the Abscam investigation as chief of the Justice Department's Criminal Division during the Carter administration, expressed surprise to learn of the FBI's willingness to attempt another congressional sting after the outcry from Capitol Hill over Abscam.
"It shows courage at the FBI," said Heymann, now a criminal law professor at Harvard University. He said he concluded, after watching a recent public television documentary and listening to experts, that "there is more corruption (on Capitol Hill) than I ever thought imaginable" and that a single FBI sting "might result in very large numbers of prosecutions."
But even without an undercover operation, Heymann and other observers say they have been pleased with the GOP-controlled Justice Department's willingness to pursue old-fashioned investigations, even if they hurt congressional Republicans in Tuesday's elections.
Nationally over the last year, 600 agents worked 2,200 public corruption cases, resulting in 650 arrests, 1,000 indictments and 800 convictions, Burrus said.
FBI Director Robert Mueller, who listed public corruption as his top criminal investigative priority when he shifted the FBI's focus to terrorism in 2002, said last month that the surge in convictions "sends the message that public corruption will not be tolerated." Despite the realignment, the number of agents working on public corruption has remained constant.
Burrus argued that the FBI is "uniquely qualified" to handle such cases, pointing to the bureau's political independence, exemplified by Mueller's 10-year term. Burrus said that Alice Fisher, the politically appointed chief of the Justice Department's Criminal Division with whom he confers weekly, also has "an aggressive attitude" about pursuing public officials.
"Operation Rainmaker," the FBI's broad investigation of a Washington lobbying ring, has already led to a handful of convictions, including Ney's guilty plea last month. The inquiry was one reason for the resignation last year of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who also faces state campaign finance charges. Other investigations seem to be sprouting everywhere.
But Reid Weingarten, a former Abscam prosecutor who now is a high-profile Washington criminal defense lawyer, said he would bet that the flurry of congressional cases has resulted from evidence "falling in their (investigators') laps," rather than a programmed FBI hunt for corruption.
The FBI does appear to be stepping up its use of electronic surveillance and has conducted stings of state politicians. Bureau agents secretly taped Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., before finding $90,000 in his freezer during a raid last May. Cell phones were wiretapped for four months in an investigation of Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., government sources say.
In "Operation Tennessee Waltz," 10 Tennessee state officials, including five current and former legislators, have been prosecuted in a scheme in which hidden cameras whirred as FBI undercover agents offered payoffs in return for help for a dummy company. Burrus said some targeted Tennessee legislators were moving so quickly that "we were actually having to discuss how we were going to slow it down" so that bills aiding the phony firm didn't become law.
A separate undercover inquiry led to the indictment of three members of San Diego's city council.
In Alaska, the FBI has more than doubled its manpower in a sweeping investigation of allegations that an oil industry services company bribed state legislators, people familiar with the inquiry said. On Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, the FBI conducted two dozen raids and searched the office of state Sen. Ben Stevens, son of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.
Burrus declined to discuss any investigation, but said the FBI will focus on more state capitals over the next year, "because we have seen a trend in cases that leads us to believe there's more out there."
When he arrived as deputy chief of the criminal division in 2004, he said, field offices frequently told him they had "no idea" how to pursue public corruption leads. Since then, he said, agents in about 30 of the bureau's 56 field offices have been trained. FBI agents in Washington have studied congressional activities that might invite bribes, such as hard-to-trace "earmarks" in which members appropriate money for pet projects, often keeping their involvement off the public record.
"Public corruption cases have to be fished out," he said, noting that crooked politicians tend to do secret deals with one other person and often try to disguise their actions as "for the public's good."
Controversial new legal theories are also helping prosecutors bring cases in which they can't prove outright briberies. A vaguely written, 28-word 1988 law, for example, makes it a fraud for a politician to deprive taxpayers of his "honest services." It was among the charges lodged against Cunningham, Ney, former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the San Diego councilmen.
Burrus said the FBI has to prove "that this person engaged in the activities specifically to receive this stream of benefits and knew that stream of benefits would stop if he did not support these particular projects."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Need to map