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Congress' Family Values

February 24, 2004

Members of Congress may have failed to stem the loss of millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs over the last few years, but they've shown extraordinary ingenuity in devising employment opportunities for their nearest and dearest. As The Times has reported over the last year, at least 11 House members and 17 senators have relatives who lobby or consult Congress on issues that members have favored through legislative or other action.

Now add Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) to the list. Maybe the top of the list. As The Times' Ken Silverstein, Chuck Neubauer and Richard T. Cooper reported Friday, Weldon's 29-year-old daughter, Karen, lucratively lobbies on sensitive foreign policy issues in the Balkans and Russia that her father influences through his committee posts. There is probably nothing illegal about the Weldons' actions, but the appearance of conflict, of pay-to-play, is overwhelming.

Karen Weldon's firm, despite her youth and lack of foreign policy experience, has a $240,000 contract with two Serbian brothers linked to accused war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. Her father has pushed the State Department to reverse its denial of visas for the family. She represents a Russian aerospace manufacturer for $20,000 a month plus 10% of any new business generated. Rep. Weldon has suggested that the Navy buy the manufacturer's flying drone. Maybe the Serbs have gotten a bum rap on their Milosevic connection. Maybe that Russian drone is a good buy. But both issues are terminally smeared by the Weldons' ethical lapses.

Earlier Times stories detailed many similar ethical conflicts. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has a son, Chester T. "Chet" Lott, who's been lobbying Congress for BellSouth. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has a son and a son-in-law lobbying in Washington, often on issues involving Reid. Another son lobbies in Nevada, and a third represents major Nevada interests as a litigator.

The list of behind-the-scenes connections at work in Washington is long, and it subverts open government.

Rep. Weldon has made dozens of trips to Russia and the former Eastern Bloc and is a long-standing military hawk. But no one can rely on his judgments as long as he appears to be working to prop up his daughter's foreign business interests.

House Ethics Committee Chairman Joel Hefly (R-Colo.) has said that he can't control members' relatives. But the nearly inert panel should certainly look into lawmakers' actions on behalf of their relatives. The least that Weldon and other lawmakers should do is recuse themselves from all issues on which their relatives lobby.

Unless Weldon separates himself from his daughter's business activities, Congress will look as though even national security is for sale.

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