So everyone, including the late John Murtha, was cleared in this investigation. We should feel reassured, right? Not exactly. One thing I learned w
February 27, 2010


So everyone, including the late John Murtha, was cleared in this investigation. We should feel reassured, right?

Not exactly. One thing I learned when I was a reporter was that there is actually very little that Congress members can't do:

The House ethics committee ruled Friday that seven lawmakers who steered hundreds of millions of dollars in largely no-bid contracts to clients of a lobbying firm had not violated any rules or laws by also collecting large campaign donations from those contractors.

In a 305-page report, the ethics committee declared that lawmakers are free to raise campaign money from the very companies they are benefiting so long as the deciding factors in granting those "earmarks" are "criteria independent" of the contributions. The report served as a blunt rejection of ethics watchdogs and a different group of congressional investigators, who have contended that in some instances the connection between donations and earmarks was so close that it had to be inappropriate.

"Simply because a member sponsors an earmark for an entity that also happens to be a campaign contributor does not, on these two facts alone, support a claim that a member's actions are being influenced by campaign contributions," the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct said in a unanimous statement.

Ethics watchdogs issued sharp denunciations, citing portions of the report that showed that the private companies thought their donations helped them win earmarks. The lawmakers -- Reps. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.) and C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) -- claimed vindication.

Years ago, I was working on a story about Crazy Curt Weldon (R-Boeing) when I found out that he was placed "on leave" from CIGNA Insurance when he was elected to Congress. I wanted to know if Weldon was getting paid in any capacity; an official told me no.

"Then what's the difference?" I asked him. He told me they wanted to "support employees who wanted to perform public service."

"How many other employees have you placed on this kind of leave?" Well, it turned out Weldon was the first - and only.

"Why put him on leave? After all, there's nothing to stop you from hiring him back," I said.

Then it hit me: "Is he accruing pension benefits while he's on leave?"

As a matter of fact, he was.

This was useful because at the time, Weldon (who was head of the House Emergency Services Caucus) was fighting to push through a bill Republicans were eager to pass. It was an earthquake relief act that would have the federal government act as re-insurer for any earthquake damage that exceeded a set amount - $10 billion, I think.

That meant Uncle Sugar would pick up the tab for anything over that amount when The Big One finally hit California. Oddly enough, only one insurance company was writing earthquake insurance in California. (Guess which one!)

So I called Weldon's office for a comment, but he refused to talk to me. Instead, his chief of staff called back. He gave me his line about how this bill was to help families get their lives back on track after an earthquake.

"I don't agree," I said. "People make decisions based on risk, and what this bill will do is make earthquake insurance premiums artificially low, since the insurers will only have to pick up a limited amount of liability. I would argue that this bill actually puts more families in danger, because they're buying properties in unsafe locations. They'll think because they can afford the insurance, it must be safe."

A pause. "You would look at it like that," the aide said accusingly. (I told him I couldn't think of any other way to look at it.)

Anyway, I contacted the Congressional Ethics Committee, and was shocked to find out this was all perfectly "ethical" by their standards. I took a look at their standards, and that's when I discovered they're appallingly lax.

So these stories aren't all that reassuring to me, and they shouldn't be to you, either.

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