Federal prosecutors have declined to take action against a lobbying firm that generated hundreds of allegedly fraudulent telegrams to Capitol Hill, citing a Supreme Court opinion that, in effect, legalizes lying to Congress.
“The U.S. attorney declined prosecution” because the law against making false statements to the government no longer applies to Congress, said Dan Nichols, spokesman for the U.S. Capitol Police.
Now it will be up to Congress, which plans hearings on the issue, to decide whether to write a law making it illegal to make false statements to lawmakers.
Nine House members complained to police after their offices were flooded with telegrams during a July lobbying fight over rewriting of telecommunications law.
Aides who called the people whose names were on the telegrams found many who said they had not authorized their use. In a few cases, the names were those of children or people who had died.
Nichols said detectives spent about three weeks checking the apparently fraudulent calls, then went to U.S. Attorney Eric Holder with the information.
“We looked at all applicable statutes, and we came up empty-handed,” said Kevin Ohlson, a spokesman for Holder.
In May, the Supreme Court ruled that the primary law barring false statements to the government cannot be used to prosecute people for lying to courts, and implied that it doesn’t apply to Congress either.
The ruling overturned a 40-year-old precedent, and it has since been cited as an argument for throwing out six of 17 federal corruption charges against former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill.
“We hope this (case) provides added impetus to Congress to consider the problem that now exists” with loopholes in the false statements law, Ohlson said.
The telegrams were the product of a massive advertising and telephone bank operation typical of the fastest-growing area of lobbying, known as grass-roots. Most were generated by the firm Beckel Cowan, which in turn subcontracted with a Virginia telemarketing company.
Police believe fraud occurred somewhere in the operation, but could not pinpoint whether it was the parent firm, the subcontractor or individual telephone operators who were responsible.
Robert Beckel, chairman of the firm, said he was “absolutely certain that there was nothing fraudulent done in our part of this process at all.” He said he was still looking into subcontractors’ operations to see whether there could have been a computer problem.
“I can prove I made phone calls to all of these people” using telephone billing records, Beckel said.