America's Criminal Class - Part V
long tradition of corruption and ambivalence
From the time they arrive
in Washington, newly elected members of Congress are told they are
something special, an elite class.
"You have reached a special place in life and in American
history," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi
told a recent class of freshmen Senators and Congressman. "Treat
it with respect."
But too many members of both the House and Senate treat their "special
place in life and in American history" as a license to steal,
living large at taxpayer expense, ignoring laws that apply to ordinary
Americans and betraying the trust of the public that put them there.
Does the heady atmosphere of Congress turn honest men and women
into a criminal class? Or is elected office simply a magnet for
those who lie, cheat and steal for a living?
It could be a little bit of both, say political scientists and
Congress has always had its share of rogues and scoundrels:
· Adam Clayton Powell, the fast-talking Harlem Congressman
who was re-elected even after Congress expelled him in 1967. Powell
had survived charges of income-tax evasion (with a hung jury) even
before his first election to Congress.
· Wes Cooley, the Oregon Congressman who lied about serving
in the Korean War, quit Congress under a cloud in 1996, and was
later convicted of falsifying VA loan applications.
· California Congressman Walter Tucker, who quit Congress
in 1996 just before his conviction for accepting $30,000 in bribes
and sentenced to 27 months in the federal pen.
Congressmen have gone to jail for child molestation, bribery, fraud,
misuse of public funds and various crimes and misdemeanors. Some
have resigned in disgrace: Wayne Hayes because he put his mistress
on his payroll as a secretary (she couldn't type) or Wilbur Mills
because he messed around with a stripper.
Yet Gary Studds of Massachusetts seduced a young male House page,
defied the House when it censured him and was re-elected several
times. But Dan Crane of Illinois had sex with a female page, cried
and begged forgiveness on the floor of the House and lost his next
Rep. Barney Frank, also of Massachussets, is the most openly-gay
member of Congress and shared his Washington townhouse with a male
prostitute who ran a homosexual whorehouse out of the residence.
But that didn't stop him from winning re-election easily or serving
as the primary Democratic defender of Bill Clinton during the Monica
"Congressional corruption has no party, no ideology and no
gender," says Constitutional Scholar Alan Baker. "It's
bipartisan and soaked in history and tradition. It also often defies
Sociologist Sandra Reeves believes public perception of widespread
corruption among elected officials is one of the reasons for the
widespread ambivalence over Bill Clinton's sex and money scandals.
"If the public felt Congress was an honest institution, there
might have been more outrage over the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal,"
Reeves says. "But many people felt that the people investigating
the President were just as dirty."
Congress is nearly always slow to act against its own. It took
the Senate three years to investigate and finally get rid of serial
sexual harasser Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon. Many of Packwood's
Republican colleagues defended him right up until the end.
"The leadership of both Houses of Congress needs a serious
wake up call," says Baker. "You can't preach morality
and family values while you wink and look the other way when one
your own breaks the law."
Andrea Wamstead knows far too well how Congress works. She worked
on the Hill for nearly 20 years before leaving to get married earlier
"It's a game to a lot of members," she says. "Under
the House rules, a Congressman doesn't have an expense account,
per se. But he can be reimbursed for constituent expenses, so he
simply tabs his regular meals as 'meals with constituents' and gets
his office budget to pay for them. The game is all about how to
get around the rules."
House rules also prohibit the paying of bonuses to employees, but
Members get around this by raising staff member's salaries by 100
percent or more for one or two months.
In 1983, California Congressman Bob Dornan went to Grenada with
a delegation to review the American military intervention of the
Caribbean island. He tried to leave the island with a stolen Russian
AK-47 in his suitcase, but the weapon was discovered by U.S. Military
Personnel and confiscated.
"He threw a royal hissy fit," says retired Army Sgt.
Andy Mackie, who was on Grenada at the time. "He kept ranting
and raving about how he was a Congressman and if he wanted an AK-47
we had no right to take it from him." The Army kept the weapon
and destroyed it.
In 1982, former New York Congressman Norman Lent tried to have
50 counterfeit Rolex watches sent to him from Taiwan. When customs
officers in Baltimore seized the shipment, Lent called the Director
of the Customs Service on the carpet and demanded to know why his
watches were taken. The director stood his ground and the watches
"We're talking about a culture of 'I'm better than everyone
else' and 'I don't have to answer to anyone,'" says Baker.
"It is pervasive and it has been part of the Congressional
culture for a long time. You may hear a lot of talk about accountability
and reform, but it simply is not happening."
Even when a new member of Congress arrives in Washington, full
of idealism about doing a good job, he or she is soon sucked into
"When members get together in the Republican and Democratic
cloakrooms, they don't talk about legislation or issues," says
former GOP House staff member Jonathan Luckstill. "They brag
about how much money they have raised for their campaign or how
they conned a trade association into an speech invitation to a convention
in Hawaii and turned it into a weeklong vacation. I've had more
than one boss come back to me and want to know why I wasn't getting
him a speech invitation to Hawaii."
Luckstill says the indoctrination also teaches new members that
a crime is only a crime when the other party commits it.
"If a Democrat is caught breaking the law, that's justice,"
he says. "But when a Republican is charged, it's politics."
Many on Capitol Hill feel the system must be changed, but few agree
on how it should be done.
As Winston Churchill once said: "Democracy is the worst form
of government imaginable - except for all other forms."
(Capitol Hill Blue editor Jack Sharp, researcher Marilyn Crosslyn
and private investigator James Hargill contributed to this report.)