Ethics Can Be a Double-Edged Blade

It appears that scandal in Washington has become that rarest of all political animals — a nonpartisan affair.

It was former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich who asserted in 1994 that Congress had become a “corrupt institution” after 40 years of Democratic control. He led the political fight that resulted in the GOP grabbing control of both the House and Senate — a status it retains to this day.

Indeed, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, majority Democrats encountered several ethical troubles, including one that forced former House Speaker Jim Wright to step down. But the past few months have firmly established that the Democrats aren’t the only party that can be tainted by scandal and face the prospect of paying a price on Election Day.

Here’s a short list of some of the recent problems bedeviling Republicans.

— Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist, pondering a presidential run in 2008, ordered the blind trust handling his substantial assets to sell all his shares of HCA, his family’s hospital company, in June. Just two weeks after the sale was complete, HCA reported lower-than-expected earnings for the second quarter of 2005, forcing a drop in the share price and eliciting whispers that Frist benefited from insider information. The Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York are investigating.

— Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California, a Vietnam War hero, already has announced he will not seek re-election in 2006 after finding himself in hot water on a number of fronts. In 2003, Cunningham sold his Del Mar-area residence to Mitchell Wade, a defense contractor, for what many consider an inflated price _ $1.675 million. Wade, who is with MZM Inc., resold the house seven months later at a $700,000 loss. Cunningham serves on the House Appropriations Committee and the Select Committee on Intelligence, panels that oversee government dealings with MZM.

— House Republican Leader Tom DeLay, long a target of Democrats drained by his hardball political tactics, was indicted Wednesday by a Travis County, Texas, grand jury in a campaign money-laundering scheme. Under Texas law, corporations are prohibited from making contributions to individual political campaigns. The grand jury maintains that a group founded by DeLay, Texans for a Republican Majority Political Action Committee, dispatched about $190,000 in corporate funds to the Republican National Committee in Washington. The RNC then returned a like amount of money that was distributed among Texas GOP legislative candidates.

— Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio has hired a criminal defense lawyer in reaction to a federal investigation into the dealings of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a man who also maintains close ties with DeLay. Newsweek reported that Abramoff planned a golf excursion to Scotland as a favor for the chairman of the House Administration Committee. Ney supported legislation that would help Abramoff’s client, the Tigua tribe of Texas, reopen a casino. It is against House ethics rules for members to take trips paid for by lobbyists.

— The Republican-controlled White House also finds itself in the hot seat. David Safavian, who served as President Bush’s chief procurement officer, resigned in early September and was arrested a few days later by federal authorities for lying to investigators probing a web of Abramoff activities.

— And then there is the brouhaha that remains the focus of conversation on the Washington cocktail party circuit _ who within the administration revealed the identity of undercover CIA operative Valerie Wilson to the media? A federal grand jury is looking into it. Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper said he got the dirt from Karl Rove, the president’s political guru. Judith Miller of The New York Times, who went to jail for contempt of court for refusing to reveal her source, now acknowledges she was told by Scooter Libby, chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney.