The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Ethical Lapses

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


In November, 2006, just after the sweeping victory by Democrats in the House of Representatives, the newly-minted Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) promised that her leadership team would create “the most honest, most open, and most ethical Congress in history.”  This seems like ancient history now.  Since then, the House has been rocked by several allegations of unethical conduct.  Yet, the House leadership’s general reaction to the ethical violations that seem to bloom almost daily appear to follow a pattern of partisan posturing and denial, followed immediately by paralysis, and ending with little or no accountability.

One example is the escalating congressional earmark scandal related to the PMA Group.  At one time, PMA was one of the largest lobbying firms in Washington, D.C., mostly focused on procuring defense earmarks for its clients.  OpenSecrets.org reports that “PMA Group's employees and its political action committee have given current members of Congress $3.4 million since 1989, with 79 percent of that going to Democrats.”  PMA had lobbying income of more than $100 million between 1998 and 2008, when it all began to unravel.  Dozens of members of the House, including Reps. Jim Moran (D-Va.), Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.) and Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) had a relationship with PMA.

The FBI has opened an investigation over whether the firm used sham donors to make campaign contributions to members of Congress who then secured earmarks for the firm’s clients.  Notorious earmark devotee John Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, is closely associated with the group; his former chief of staff, Paul Magliochetti, was its founder.  According to ABC News, PMA is “the second company with close ties to Murtha to be raided by federal agents recently.  In January, agents from the FBI, the IRS and the Defense Criminal Investigative Service searched the office of Kuchera Industries and Kuchera Defense Systems, as well as the homes of the firms’ founders.”  In spite of all this, the House Ethics Committee has yet to open up an inquiry of any kind into the case.

In fact, the Ethics Committee has been rather lackadaisical about investigating ethics violations of any kind and particularly when the alleged violations are related to congressional earmarking.  Investigations into Reps. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) and Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), both Appropriations Committee members, have gone unresolved for years.  Similarly, an ethics controversy around Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) related to his role in securing a $10 million earmark in Florida to help a campaign contributor has dropped off the radar.  Currently, the only confirmed committee investigation underway is related to the questionable tax activities of House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), and only because he publicly asked for it.  Most of the other non-earmark related investigations undertaken by the House Ethics Committee have occurred only after a member has been arrested or indicted by law enforcement, as in the cases of former Reps. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) and William Jefferson (D-La.).

For Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), the PMA investigation was perhaps the last straw.  He decided to test the mettle of the House leadership’s commitment to transparency and accountability.  In February, 2009 Rep. Flake offered the first of five privileged resolutions, attempting to force the Ethics Committee to examine the relationship between earmarking and campaign contributions.

In each case, his resolution was tabled before it could reach the floor for debate, most recently on March 25.  In explaining their resistance to his resolution, House opponents repeatedly moved the goal post.  In his first attempt, critics charged that the resolution was too broad and would stretch the resources of the Ethics Committee to the breaking point.  Considering that Congress funded 11,610 earmarks in 2008 worth $17.2 billion, it is no wonder committee staff does not want to attempt to chase them all down.

Rep. Flake re-crafted the resolution several times, tailoring it to try to answer critics and attract votes.  He was rebuffed each time.  On two occasions, the members of Congress charged with killing his resolution were recipients of PMA campaign contributions:  House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.).

However, a report in the March 30 edition of Politico details how Flake’s series of resolutions is slowly but surely attracting votes among House Democrats (17 Democratic members voted with him in the most recent foray), several of whom ran and won on anti-corruption platforms.  According to Politico, “Privately, Democrats say that if Flake were serious about wanting an ethics committee investigation, he could file an ethics complaint against Murtha or other members tied to PMA.  They note that Flake has failed to do that so far – and they say it’s because he knows Democrats could retaliate by filing their own ethics complaints against Reps. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) or Don Young (R-Alaska).”  It is highly unlikely that Rep. Flake is daunted by the possibility of drawing the ire of ethically-challenged Republican members since he has been a longtime anti-earmark crusader and as a result has not won any popularity contests among his colleagues.

The House leadership’s dramatic promise to drain the congressional swamp has been a travesty.  Particularly when it comes to the corruptive practice of swapping congressional earmarks for campaign contributions, the ethical bar in the House of Representatives is so low that a member of Congress practically has to be sporting an orange jumpsuit with matching bracelets before the leadership will even raise an eyebrow, let alone begin an inquiry.

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