In Congress, the crooks rake in the wealth

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, under federal investigation for possible insider trading, will have a nice nest egg to fall back on when he retires from Congress in January, recording income last year of more than $5 million from his largest blind trust.

Frist, R-Tenn., is hardly the richest member of the millionaires’ club of Congress, but he and numerous other lawmakers whose financial dealings have been questioned were under scrutiny as House and Senate lawmakers disclosed their finances Wednesday.

Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., steered millions in federal money to nonprofit groups in his district that had contributed to his campaigns. Mollohan, who has reported large increases in assets in recent years due to a boost in property values, claimed part ownership in a Washington property firm and several properties in Bald Head Island, N.C., each valued at $1 million to $5 million.

Mollohan stepped down as top Democrat on the House ethics committee because of charges, which he has denied, that he acted improperly.

Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who gave up his chairmanship of the House Administration Committee while under investigation for his links to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, reported no major assets. Ney, one of the recipients of an Abramoff golfing trip to Scotland, has said he and his staff have stopped allowing any outside groups to pay for trips.

Popular opinion of Congress has plummeted this year as one former House member, Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., went to jail for taking more than $2 million in bribes, another, Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., is under investigation after $90,000 in alleged bribe money was found in his freezer and several others are under a cloud because of ties to Abramoff.

Jefferson reported assets of up to $500,000 from shares in a law firm and money owed to him from his mayoral and gubernatorial campaigns worth $100,001 to $250,000. He also had some outstanding loans: two valued at $50,001 to $100,000 and another at $15,001 to $50,000.

The disclosure forms, of course, give little indication of possible unscrupulous activity, listing salaries — $162,100 in 2005 for a rank-and-file House and Senate member — and details of a lawmaker’s assets, outside income, travel and losses. Speaking fees must be donated to charity, gifts are limited to $100 from any individual in a year and outside income can be no more than 15 percent of salary.

But the forms still provide a glimpse of private lives. Frist, a heart surgeon with presidential aspirations, had a good year with income from his largest blind trust, worth between $5 million and $25 million, bringing him more than $5 million. He paid off a line of credit worth between $1 million and $5 million and listed a new money market account worth $1 million to $5 million.

Federal prosecutors and the Securities and Exchange Commission are investigating Frist’s order last year to sell all his stock in HCA Inc., the hospital company founded by his father and brother. Frist denies he had any insider information about the stock, which lost 9 percent in value two weeks after the sale.

Among the other well-off congressional leaders was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who jointly owns with her investor husband a St. Helena, Calif., vineyard worth $5 million to $25 million and a town house in Norden, Calif., worth $1 million to $5 million.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who also has had to defend himself over his support of Indian tribes represented by Abramoff, reported various assets valued in the $1 million range, including 160 acres in Bullhead City, Ariz., land holdings in Nevada, municipal bonds and mining claims.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., reported a Citibank account she shares with her spouse, Bill Clinton, worth $5 million to $25 million and a blind trust valued at the same amount. Former President Clinton earned nearly $7.5 million in speaking appearances in 2005, a big boost from the previous year when bypass surgery and a book deadline kept him home.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who has tens of millions from family trust funds, earned $50,000 in royalties for a children’s book about his dog, “My Senator and Me.”

Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., whose re-election bid has become harder because of the $150,000 in donations he received from Abramoff and his clients, said his major assets were a credit union account and mutual fund, both valued between $50,001 and $100,000.

Burns returned the Abramoff money or donated it to charity.

Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who succeeded Tom DeLay, R-Texas, as majority leader after DeLay was indicted on money laundering charges, claimed $1 million to $5 million in assets from the plastics and packaging company he operated before his election to Congress. He also reported $2,700 in slot machine winnings.

Not all lawmakers were rolling in wealth. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, reported joint bank account interest of $201 to $1,000 as a major source of unearned income.

© 2006 The Associated Press