Hastert Makes $2 Million Off Of His Own Earmark

June 16, 2006

Original story, broke by the Sunlight Foundation can be found here.

Reporting from The Blotter, at CBS News: 

Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL) realized an estimated $2 million dollar profit last year on an Illinois land deal that included acreage near a future interstate highway Hastert pushed to build.

The land was sold just five months after Hastert inserted a $207 million appropriation bill for the Prairie Parkway highway during a closed-door Congressional budget conference.

The deal, representing a 300 per cent return on investment, was reported in Hastert's financial disclosure form filed this week, although the role of a secret trust set up by Hastert to sell the land was not disclosed.

A spokesman for Hastert, Ron Bonjean, confirmed the details, which were first reported by Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation, an on-line political watchdog group. The Speaker's spokesman said land in the Plano, Illinois area is "booming," and the future highway had no impact on the price.

Hastert and partners sold the land to developers who plan a large residential sub-division about five miles from the new highway.

Local citizens fighting the highway project were outraged to learn of the Hastert deal. "I think he clearly has his own personal interest and not the public's by buying and selling land to developers for personal profit, when it has a negative long-range effect on the community," said Jan Strasma, head of community group Citizens Against the Sprawlway.

Hastert's spokesman said that Hastert had been a proponent of the highway for 20 years, and there was nothing improper in the deal.

According to Hastert's disclosure form and county property records, a 69-acre parcel was put into a trust, Little Rock Trust #225, on May 2, 2005.

Two months later, in July 2005, Hastert pushed the highway appropriation bill through a conference committee.

On Aug. 6, 2005 President Bush appeared with Hastert at a ceremony in Illinois to celebrate the new highway's funding.

On Dec. 7, 2005 the trust sold the parcel of land to the developers.

The spokesman said, for tax reasons, Hastert used part of his $2 million profit to buy a 275-acre farm in Wisconsin that Hastert intends to use as a future retirement home.

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Santorum Takes Most Money From Lobbyists

May 24, 2006

In a report released today by Public Citizen, Senator Rick Santorum opped the list of those who have benefitted most from lobby gifts, raking in a whopping $560,738.

Public Citizen's Press Release:

Lobbyists Contributed $103 Million to Lawmakers Since 1998

Public Citizen Report Reveals Names and Numbers Behind Biggest Lobbyist Contributors

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Lobbyists and their political action committees (PACs) have contributed at least $103.1 million to members of Congress since 1998, according to a new report released today by Public Citizen. This is the first comprehensive effort to match names of lobbyists with Federal Election Commission campaign contribution data. The result provides details about the biggest lobbyist contributors and congressional recipients of campaign largesse and furnishes a contribution total nearly double the previous estimate.

The report, released today in a telephone press conference, details the amounts given to members of Congress since 1998 by the 50 biggest lobbyist money-givers. Twenty-seven percent of lobbyists have contributed an amount to lawmakers large enough to be recognized by the Federal Election Commission ($200 or more), and a select 6.1 percent of lobbyists have contributed at least $10,000 – totaling 83.4 percent of all lobbyist contributions. Many of the top recipients of congressional campaign money are on appropriations committees that dole out federal money.

The report also records the rise of contributions by lobbyists from $17.8 million in the 2000 election cycle to $33.9 million in the 2004 cycle – a 90.3 percent increase. In the 2006 election, lobbyists and their PACs are already on track to give about 10 percent more than in the previous cycle, not accounting for the expected increase in contributions as Election Day draws nearer.

“These numbers reveal the seamier side of Washington’s congressional decision-making,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. “Such enormous sums buy commensurate access, shutting most Americans out of the process and skewing legislation and budget allocation.”

Profiling the 10 lobbyists who have given the most to members of Congress since 1998, the report provides behind-the-scenes glimpses of some of the most egregious policy-making fiascos in recent years. One prime example is Kenneth Kies, who served as the chief of staff of the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation from 1995 to 1998 and who, along with his wife Kathleen, is the study’s fifth-highest lobbyist-contributor to Congress with $292,866 since 1998.

Kies played an indispensable role in preserving the “synfuel” tax credit, which has allowed exploitative companies to bilk the Treasury out of $1 billion to $4 billion per year merely by spraying coal with diesel fuel or other substances and claiming a tax credit for creating a “synthetic” fuel. The top recipient of their largesse, House Ways and Means Select Measures Subcommittee Chairman Jim McCrery (R-La.), has helped protect the synfuel tax credit from a crackdown by both the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service.

Lobbyist Denny Miller, whose $293,203 in contributions to members of Congress since 1998 rank him fourth in Public Citizen’s study, was one of two lobbyists to negotiate the proposed $30 billion Boeing tanker deal in 2001. Miller was a former chief of staff to Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-Wash.), the former senator for Boeing’s hometown and corporate headquarters.

When on the verge of passage, the deal imploded amid revelations that leasing the planes would be more expensive than purchasing them outright, that the military didn’t truly need the planes and that the negotiations repeatedly violated regulations. This near-miss is considered one of the worst procurement abuses in recent decades and has resulted in prison sentences for a Boeing executive and a Pentagon official.

“The campaign contributions lobbyists make from their own checkbooks, while significant, are just a fraction of the equation,” said Claybrook. “This report also reveals that top lobbyist contributors coordinate lucrative fund-raisers for the lawmakers they hope to influence and bring in a steady stream of contributions from their corporate clients far greater than they alone give.”

The lobbyist couple Denny and Sandra Miller once hosted a pair of fund-raisers for Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) that netted the lawmaker $160,000 in just four hours. The total the Millers could have contributed as individuals under the campaign finance law at the time was $4,000. Denny Miller was also among 15 lobbyists who coordinated a fund-raiser for a Stevens foundation in 2004 that raised $2 million.

And while disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff ranks 30th among the lobbyists considered in the report with $180,503 in contributions to members of Congress since 1998, his clients contributed a total of $2.6 million to members of Congress in the same time period.

To limit this type of waste and malfeasance, Congress should prevent lobbyists from making contributions of greater than $200 per election to lawmakers’ campaign committees or from contributing more than $500 per election cycle to national parties or leadership PACs, the report says. Lobbyists should also be prevented from arranging contributions to federal candidates, serving as officials on candidate campaign committees and leadership PACs, funding events “honoring” members of Congress and contributing to foundations controlled by lawmakers. None of these limitations are in the pending ethics and lobby reform bills before Congress, revealing how inadequate they are.

The report recommends publicly financing campaigns as the only real remedy to abuses and scandals. Public funding would pay for itself by saving billions wasted in lobbyist-brokered corporate giveaways.

“Our system of selling federal tax breaks, contracts, subsidies, loan guarantees and regulatory cutbacks to the highest bidder is not only subverting the democratic process, it’s costing the country billions and driving up the national debt,” said Taylor Lincoln, research director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division and the principal author of the report. “Even spending as much as $2 billion a year to publicly finance campaigns would be cheaper than the synfuel boondoggle alone – and that’s just one of the tax credits that has emerged from the toxic combination of influence-peddlers and campaign contributions.”


Jefferson Must Go!

May 22, 2006

From Yahoo! News:

A congressman under investigation for bribery was caught on videotape accepting $100,000 in $100 bills from an     FBI informant whose conversations with the lawmaker also were recorded, according to a court document released Sunday. Agents later found the cash hidden in his freezer.

At one audiotaped meeting, Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), chuckles about writing in code to keep secret what the government contends was his corrupt role in getting his children a cut of a communications company's deal for work in Africa.

As Jefferson and the informant passed notes about what percentage the lawmaker's family might receive, the congressman "began laughing and said, 'All these damn notes we're writing to each other as if we're talking, as if the FBI is watching,'" according to the affidavit.

Jefferson, who represents New Orleans, has not been charged and denies any wrongdoing.

As for the $100,000, the government says Jefferson got the money in a leather briefcase last July 30 at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Arlington. The plan was for the lawmaker to use the cash to bribe a high-ranking Nigerian official — the name is blacked out in the court document — to ensure the success of a business deal in that country, the affidavit said.

All but $10,000 was recovered on Aug. 3 when the FBI searched Jefferson's home in Washington. The money was stuffed in his freezer, wrapped in $10,000 packs and concealed in food containers and aluminum foil.

Two of Jefferson's associates have pleaded guilty to bribery-related charges in federal court in Alexandria. One, businessman Vernon Jackson of Louisville, Ky., admitted paying more than $400,000 in bribes to the lawmaker in exchange for his help securing business deals for Jackson's telecommunications company in Nigeria and other African countries.

The new details about the case emerged after federal agents searched Jefferson's congressional office on Capitol Hill Saturday night and Sunday. The nearly 100-page affidavit for a search warrant, made public Sunday with large portions blacked out, spells out much of the evidence so far.

The document includes excerpts of conversations between Jefferson and an unidentified business executive from northern Virginia. She agreed to wear a wire after she approached the FBI with complaints that Jefferson and an associate had ripped her off in a business deal.

Jefferson's lawyer, Robert Trout, contended that the prosecutors' disclosure was "part of a public relations agenda and an attempt to embarrass Congressman Jefferson. The affidavit itself is just one side of the story which has not been tested in court," Trout said in a statement.

The affidavit says Jefferson is caught on videotape at the Ritz-Carlton as he takes a reddish-brown briefcase from the trunk of the informant's car, slips it into a cloth bag, puts the bag into his 1990 Lincoln Town Car and drives away.

The $100 bills in the suitcase had the same serial numbers as those found in Jefferson's freezer.

While the name of the intended recipient of the $100,000 is blacked out, other details in the affidavit indicate he is Abubakar Atiku, Nigeria's vice president. He owns a home in Potomac, Md., that authorities have searched as part of the Jefferson investigation.

Jefferson assured the FBI informant in their coded conversations that he paid the money to the Nigerian official, even though the money was still in Jefferson's possession when agents searched his home Aug. 3.

On Aug. 1, two days after Jefferson picked up the $100,000, the informant called Jefferson to ask about the status of "the package."

Jefferson responded: "I gave him the African art that you gave me and he was very pleased."

When Jefferson and the informant had dinner at a Washington restaurant on May 12, 2005, the FBI was listening, too. Jefferson indicates he will need an increased stake in the profits of one deal, the affidavit said. Instead of the 7 percent stake originally agreed upon, he writes "18-20" on a piece of paper and passes it to the informant.

That is when negotiations move ahead and notes go back and forth, ending with Jefferson's laughter about the FBI watching it all.

Throughout the conversations, Jefferson makes attempts to deflect direct connections to any bribes.

He tells the informant at one point that money should be paid to businesses operated by his children. "I make a deal for my children. It wouldn't be me," Jefferson said, according to the affidavit.

In a different conversation, Jefferson seeks to distance himself from bribes that must be paid to Nigerian government officials to facilitate transactions.

"If he's gotta pay Minister X, we don't want to know. It's not our deal," Jefferson told the witness, according to the affidavit. "We're not paying Minister X a damn thing. That's all, you know, international fraud crap. We're not doing that. We're not doing any of that that gets us (unintelligible)."

The affidavit also spells out "seven other schemes" in which Jefferson was involved; nearly all were blacked out in the document.

The Jefferson investigation has provided fodder for Republicans who have suffered black eyes in the investigations of current and former GOP lawmakers, including     Tom DeLay and Randy "Duke" Cunningham.

Jefferson, who has pledged not to resign from Congress in the face of the bribery investigation, speculated about his political future in one of the recorded conversations.

When the informant asked Jefferson about his political plans, he responded: "I'm gonna get your deal out of the way … and I probably won't last long after that."


Congressional Committee To Investigate Jefferson

May 18, 2006

From the House Website:

May 17, 2006

Statement of Chairman Doc Hastings and Ranking Minority Member Howard L. Berman
 
In accordance with Clause 3 of House Rule XI and Rule 14(a)(3) and 18 of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, which authorize the Committee to establish an investigative subcommittee of its own initiative, the Committee has voted to establish an investigative subcommittee to conduct an inquiry regarding Representative William J. Jefferson.

Pursuant to the Committee’s action, the investigative subcommittee shall have jurisdiction to determine whether Representative Jefferson violated the Code of Official Conduct or any law, rule, regulation, or other standard of conduct applicable to his conduct in the performance of his duties or the discharge of his responsibilities, with respect to allegations that Representative Jefferson or his family members received cash, stock shares, agreements to receive future profits, retainers, offers of employment, travel benefits, or any other items of value from Brett Pfeffer, Lori Mody, Vernon Jackson, iGate, Inc., or any other individual or entity associated with those individuals or that entity, and the relationship, if any, between the cash, stock shares, agreements to receive future profits, retainers, offers of employment, travel benefits, or other items of value and Representative Jefferson’s status or actions as a Member of Congress.  

Representative Melissa A. Hart will serve as Chairman of the investigative subcommittee, and Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones will serve as its Ranking Minority Member.  The other two members of the subcommittee are Representative Tom Latham and Representative Adam B. Schiff.


Congressional Committee To Investigate Ney

May 18, 2006

Congressman Hastings, head of the "Committee on Standards of Official Conduct", has finally decided to start holding hearings.  The committee has been defunct since early 2005 due to partisian bickering.

From the House Website:

May 17, 2006

Statement of Chairman Doc Hastings and Ranking Minority Member Howard L. Berman

In accordance with Clause 3 of House Rule XI and Rule 14(a)(3) and 18 of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, which authorize the Committee to establish an investigative subcommittee of its own initiative, the Committee has voted to establish an investigative subcommittee to conduct an inquiry regarding Representative Robert W. Ney.

Pursuant to the Committee’s action, the investigative subcommittee shall have jurisdiction to determine whether Representative Ney violated the Code of Official Conduct or any law, rule, regulation, or other standard of conduct applicable to his conduct in the performance of his duties or the discharge of his responsibilities, with respect to allegations that Representative Ney received gifts, travel benefits, campaign contributions to political committees and organizations, or any other items of value from Jack A. Abramoff, Michael P. S. Scanlon, Tony C. Rudy, Neil G. Volz, or any individuals or entities associated with those individuals, and the relationship, if any, between the gifts, travel benefits, campaign contributions to political committees and organizations, or other items of value, and Representative Ney’s status or actions as a Member of Congress.

Representative Lamar S. Smith will serve as Chairman of the investigative subcommittee, and Representative Gene Green will serve as its Ranking Minority Member.  The other two members of the subcommittee are Representative Marsha Blackburn and Representative Xavier Becerra.


Crew Asks DOJ To Investigate Sensenbrenner

May 12, 2006

From The CREW website:

In Possible Violation of Federal Law, Congressman Reportedly Asked To Be Taken on European Trip

Washington, DC – Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) today sent a letter to the Department of Justice (DOJ) asking for an investigation into whether Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) violated federal law by soliciting a trip to Germany and Liechtenstein from the International Management and Development Institute (IMDI).

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported this week that Rep. Sensenbrenner asked IMDI, a group that brings together politicians and corporate executives, for a European trip that had been cancelled to be rescheduled because “he felt so strongly” about going on the trip. The institute then organized a special week-long trip to Berlin and Liechtenstein just for Rep. Sensenbrenner and his wife. The trip had been cancelled this year due to the publicity surrounding the Jack Abramoff scandal.

IMDI is headed by Don Bonker, a former congressman and now lobbyist for APCO Worldwide, an international public relations firm. Corporations underwrite IMDI, which rents space from APCO.

Rep. Sensenbrenner’s conduct may have violated the federal law that prohibits Members from soliciting a gift from any person who has interests before the House. 5 U.S.C. § 7353. This provision limits not only what government officials may accept, but also that for which they may ask.

“If Rep. Sensenbrenner and his wife would like to travel to Europe then they should pay for it themselves like everyone else,” Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW said today. “The Department of Justice should open an investigation to determine whether Rep. Sensenbrenner violated federal law by asking IMDI to organize and pay over $11,0000 for the week-long trip.”


Bush Nominated Abramoff Associate On Day Of Visit

May 11, 2006

From Raw Story:

Convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff went to the White House on the same day President Bush nominated one of Abramoff's former colleagues to be Assistant Secretary of Labor.

President Bush announced his intent to nominate Patrick Pizzella, who worked with Abramoff at his former lawfirm Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds, the same day Abramoff made a visit to the White House, according to Secret Service records released today.

On Mar. 6, 2001, Abramoff entered at 4:23 p.m. and left at 4:49 p.m., according to Cox News Service, which obtained the records from the government watchdog Judicial Watch today (Article).

A White House press release shows that Bush nominated Patrick Pizzella the very same day.

"The President intends to nominate Patrick Pizzella to be Assistant Secretary of Labor for Administration and Management," the release says. "He is presently the Acting Chief of Staff at the Office of Personnel Management and previously was a government affairs representative with the law firm of Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds in Washington, D.C. From 1990 to 1995 he served as the Director of the Office of Administration at the Federal Housing Finance Board and he served in a variety of positions at the U.S. Department of Education, the Small Business Administration and the General Services Administration during the Reagan and Bush administrations. He is a graduate of the University of South Carolina in Columbia."

Pizzella is the only Abramoff associate to remain in a senior Bush Administration post. David Safavian, who also worked with Abramoff, was arrested last year after allegations that he was obstructing the government's investigation of the Abramoff case. Safavian had been Bush's top procurement officer, overseeing $300 billion annually in federal spending.