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2006-01-04

Congress on Edge As Abramoff Agrees to Testify About Widespread Corruption on Capitol Hill

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We take a closer look at who benefited from their ties to Jack Abramoff inside Congress. The Wall Street Journal is reporting Abramoff says he has information that could implicate 60 lawmakers. One Republican lawmaker — Congressman Robert Ney of Ohio — has already been subpoenaed. We speak with researcher Judd Legum about the lawmakers involved. [includes rush transcript]

But many other Republicans face possible corruption inquiries including former House Majority Leader Tom Delay and House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Some Democrats — including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid — have also received donations from clients of Abramoff. While Abramoff has been a lifelong Republican activist, the White House is attempting to paint the scandal as a bipartisan affair. But advocates for campaign finance are warning that the Abramoff scandal is only the tip of a more widespread problem in Washington.

  • Chellie Pingree, president of the watchdog group Common Cause said, ""I don’t think anyone does buy, you know, one single vote or every decision for a dinner. But the cumulative influence of every night a different dinner, and a different set of lobbyists, and, you know, a golfing trip, and, making sure your staff is, you know, taken to a casino. The spread of this influence permeates the decision-making process here, and you have to step back again and say 'does the average citizen get to sit down with a member of Congress and let them know how they feel about health care or education or the war in Iraq?' And if not, they why should someone who is able to buy them a 150 dollar have that level of access and influence?"

To review which lawmakers have been implicated in the Abramoff scandal, we are joined in our Washington studio by Judd Legum, director of research at the Center for American Progress.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: While Abramoff has been a lifelong Republican activist, the White House is attempting to paint the scandal as a bipartisan affair. This is a clip from Tuesday’s White House press briefing with Scott McClellan.

REPORTER: Scott, a Republican lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, has pleaded guilty to fraud, corruption and tax evasion here in a federal court in Washington. Already the D.N.C. has put out a statement essentially saying that this is another example of what they are calling the culture of corruption and abuse of power that has been the hallmark of the Bush administration. Your response?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Well, I’ve seen press reports that indicate that he has — he and his clients have given to both Democrats and Republicans. So that’s the first thing that I would say. Secondly, I’m not sure if he’s actually entered a plea at this point, but the wrong-doing that he apparently now is acknowledging he was involved in is outrageous. And if he broke laws, he needs to be held to account, and he needs to be punished. And beyond that I think we’d be speculating about things at this point. I’m not going to engage in speculation.

AMY GOODMAN: White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan. Advocates for campaign finance are warning the Abramoff scandal is only the tip of a more widespread problem in Washington. Chellie Pingree, president of the watchdog group, Common Cause:

CHELLIE PINGREE: Given the web of his engagement and his involvement, there’s a lot of things people have to be worried about. There are certainly members of Congress, themselves, who are concerned that they will be implicated in having taken money, whether it was campaign contributions or gifts, from Jack Abramoff and his clients, and done something in return.

But then, the net goes much further. There are people who are working in members of Congress’s office, in the executive branch, in the private sector, associates of his, members of the communities that gave money to members of Congress. It looks like this scandal is going to go very far.

I don’t think anyone does buy one single vote or every decision for a dinner. But the cumulative influence of every night a different dinner and a different set of lobbyists and a golfing trip and making sure your staff is taken to a casino, or, you know, just the spread of this influence permeates the decision making process here. And you have to step back again and say: Does the average citizen get to sit down with a member of Congress and let them know how they feel about health care or education or the war in Iraq? And if not, then why should somebody who’s able to buy them $150 dinner have that level of access and influence?

AMY GOODMAN: Chellie Pingree of the Washington watch group, Common Cause. To review which lawmakers have been implicated in the Abramoff scandal, we’re joined now in our Washington studio by Judd Legum, director of research at the Center for American Progress. Welcome, Judd.

JUDD LEGUM: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you go through the list?

JUDD LEGUM: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s a long list. And I think it depends on how you define it. But I think if you look — particularly you’ve gotten most of the involvement among Republicans in the House. And you can start at the top with Dennis Hastert, who you’ve mentioned, who held fundraisers at Jack Abramoff’s restaurant, who received money for him, and in the end was involved in a lot of efforts involving Indian tribes that he generally wasn’t involved with in the past before these donations started flowing in. Of course, you have Tom DeLay, whose close associations with Abramoff are well known, once described Abramoff as his closest friend.

But then, beyond those two, you have a long list of people in the House of Representatives who also had very extensive ties. You have Bob Ney who’s been named, not by name, but referred to in these indictments. Clearly some very questionable, if not blatantly illegal actions on behalf of Ney, and I think he’s in for a rough road.

But when you go beyond those three, there are actually a lot of other people who could potentially be facing problems. You have people like JD Hayworth who have been guests at Abramoff’s skybox at the MCI Center here in Washington, who have also been doing things on behalf of clients. You have somebody like John Doolittle, who not only received money from Abramoff, who not only was involved in doing favors for him or of clients, but whose wife was actually working for Abramoff, raising money for some of these front nonprofit groups who are really a vital piece to this whole influence regime that Abramoff set up, getting money in, tax exempt money, funneling it both for himself to build homes, to build other — and then also to curry favor with lobbyists, to send them on trips, etc. So it’s quite an extensive list, and it’s quite an extensive number of ties.

AMY GOODMAN: Judd, what about Byron Dorgan, the Democrat, he of North Dakota, and the Minority Leader in the Senate, Harry Reid?

JUDD LEGUM: Well, I think they are both in a list where it’s really up in the air at this point as to whether what they did was appropriate or not. You certainly have two things there. You have donations that they received from Abramoff’s clients. No money from Abramoff. Abramoff didn’t directly give any money to Democrats, but they received money from his clients, and you also have them doing activities that benefited Abramoff’s clients. On behalf of Byron Dorgan, what he says is that, 'Look, I supported these policies before the money ever came in.' So maybe that will hold up when this is given closer scrutiny. But at this point, we don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: Judd Legum is director of research, the Center for American Progress.

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