WASHINGTON – The abrupt resignation last week of two Republican House members from their sensitive committee assignments has 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 Doolittle of California and Rick Renzi of Arizona disclosed FBI raids on their homes and businesses, proclaiming their innocence but exposing their legal jeopardy. The announcements were the most recent in a series of developments that have kept the focus on old ethical and legal clouds that helped chase the Republican Party from power on Capitol Hill.
Among those developments, 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 Miller, R-Calif., under investigation by the FBI for a series of land deals, is now facing Democratic ads alleging 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 he has racked up $892,951.69 since July in legal fees. 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. 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 lawyers said he had done nothing wrong.
Renzi notified House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, that federal investigators had raided the offices of Patriot Insurance Agency 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 Jefferson, D-La., was subpoenaed last week to testify before the grand jury investigating corruption and bribery allegations, signaling that probe is ongoing. Earlier this year, Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the departments of Commerce and Justice, was forced to recuse himself of law enforcement funding matters because he is under FBI investigation.
But for the GOP, the spate of bad ethics news has clouded efforts to portray the new Democratic majority as ineffective, while it has helped Democrats to 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 turned the GOP out, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. and 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. and 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 any Republican seats only raises the number of incumbent Democrats the GOP would have to defeat.
The DCCC is interviewing candidates seeking to run against Renzi, who escaped challenge last year from a high-profile Democrat but still only won 52 percent of the vote. Former military pilot Charlie Brown, who held Doolittle to 49 percent in November, has filed papers for a rematch and has banked $132,000 in the first quarter for his run.
The DCCC has already aired two radio ads raising ethics charges against Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., who has admitted calling now-fired U.S. Attorney David Iglesias ahead of the November election 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 footage of Miller repeatedly pleading with city officials in Monrovia, Calif., to buy 165 acres of his property. Miller made more than $10 million off the 2002 sale, but he sheltered the profits from capital gains taxes by claiming the sale was forced under threat of eminent domain. Repeated calls to Miller’s office were not returned Saturday.