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NEWS ANALYSIS

The Corruption Crackdown

For Congress, the line that separates illegal conduct from business as usual may be shifting.

May 27, 2006|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Forgive House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) for seeming a bit paranoid.

With grand juries convened around the country and hundreds of FBI agents on the case, Congress has become the focal point of the most aggressive investigations into federal corruption in decades.

One investigation has led to an eight-year prison sentence for former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a Republican from Rancho Santa Fe. And a bribery probe targeting Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) boiled into a constitutional confrontation this week after the FBI conducted an unprecedented search of his Capitol Hill office -- and departed with two cartons of documents and extensive computer records.

After House leaders, including Hastert, demanded that the documents be returned, ABC News reported that Hastert was "in the mix" of another corruption investigation.

The speaker charged that the Justice Department was trying to intimidate him. The White House called his accusation "false, false, false," and the Justice Department denied it was looking into Hastert.

Almost lost in the recent flurry has been the investigation into former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty this year to conspiring to bribe members of Congress. Four Abramoff associates have pleaded guilty to crimes; a fifth is on trial in federal court.

Abramoff, the erstwhile intimate of top congressional Republicans, is talking to FBI agents looking for evidence that lawmakers took bribes. At the FBI, boxes are filling with letters and transcripts of e-mails from members, aides and lobbyists relating to trips, deals and political requests.

"It is certainly unprecedented in recent history," said Randall D. Eliason, a former chief of the public corruption unit in the U.S. attorney's office in Washington. "You have to go back to Abscam to think about a time when there were this many high-level public officials being looked at."

Eliason was referring to the case in the late 1970s and early 1980s in which several members of Congress were convicted on bribery charges after being caught on videotape accepting cash from FBI employees posing as Middle Eastern businessmen seeking political favors for a nonexistent sheik.

Even that scandal -- which stemmed from a single FBI sting operation -- pales in comparison to the latest bumper crop of investigations, Eliason said.

But if there is a new vigor in the age-old pursuit of corrupt politicians, there also are questions about whether the Justice Department is redrawing the line that separates corruption from business as usual.

Politicians always have had pet projects, and have considered pleasing supporters to be part of their constitutionally mandated duty.

But some long-established practices -- including one known as earmarking, where lawmakers slip favored legislation into spending bills -- are coming under scrutiny. There is concern that they are being used for self-enrichment or payback to supporters and campaign contributors.

"In the past, the Justice Department turned its eye away from official conduct linked to campaign contributions. Now that premise is being questioned," said Abbe Lowell, a Washington defense lawyer who has represented many members of Congress. He also represents Abramoff.

"It is a huge policy issue," Lowell said. "It goes to the heart of the private [campaign] contribution system."

Even some prosecutors say that what the federal law enforcement community considers illegal conduct is becoming a moving target.

"There are different views in the Department of Justice on what is bribery and what constitutes a legitimate campaign contribution," said one law enforcement official who requested anonymity because he is involved in investigations. "I think there is a general shift toward being more aggressive and pushing the limits."

The Justice Department also seems to be departing from past practice by giving largely unfettered power to investigate such cases to U.S. attorneys across the country.

The result, some current and former officials said, is a sort of feeding frenzy of new cases -- the strength of which is far from clear.

"A lot of offices are smelling blood in the water," said a government official who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the investigations. "Whether anything comes out of these things ... is another question."

The official said that the Justice Department was seeking to give prosecutors in the field more discretion because officials in Washington were concerned they would be perceived as trying to influence the investigations for political reasons. But the result has been a raft of media reports that make it hard to discern how serious the inquiries are.

That, in turn, is raising the anxiety of public officials who may become entangled in the cases.

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