November 09, 2012

Most Corrupt Update: As Members Depart Congress, Will Their Ethics Troubles Follow?

By CREW Staff

Most Corrupt UpdateWhen the polls closed Tuesday night, several of CREW’s Most Corrupt Members of Congress were among the most prominent political casualties of the 2012 election.  For these scoundrels, it appears their bad behavior finally caught up with them.  

Months before Election Day, Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL) lost his primary, and Reps. Norm Dicks (D-WA), Ron Paul (R-TX), and Ed Towns (D-NY) opted to retire.  Ethics figured heavily into the races of Reps. Jean Schmidt (R-OH) and Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), who lost their primaries, and Reps. Shelley Berkley (D-NV), David Rivera (R-FL) , and Laura Richardson (D-CA), who lost in the general election.  Still, ethics charges are not merely fodder for campaign ads.  The question remains — what happens to the charges against these corrupt members after they are ousted from Congress?  For the 2012 class of CREW’s Most Corrupt that we’re saying goodbye to, the answers vary.

Win or lose (though she lost), Rep. Shelley Berkley would not have had to account for intervening to save a kidney transplant center benefitting her physician husband financially.  If she had been elected to the upper chamber, the Senate Ethics Committee would not have pursued the House investigation because the committee has no jurisdiction over conduct that took place in the lower chamber.  In 2008, when considering whether Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) should be disciplined for engaging the services of prostitutes while a member of the House, the Senate Ethics Committee dismissed the matter, in part because the conduct had occurred before Sen. Vitter’s “Senate candidacy and service.”  At the same time, the House is unlikely to proceed with the ongoing investigation now that Rep. Berkley is vacating her office.

A freshman representative whose chief achievements were measured not in legislative victories, but in accusations of criminal activity, defeated Rep. David Rivera is unlikely to get off the hook as easily. Indeed, with ongoing probes by the FBI, IRS, and Miami Dade Police Department, and the most recent investigation into fraud during the primary, it seems Rivera’s legal woes won’t expire with his term.

Perhaps the most important lesson can be learned from Rep. Laura Richardson, who unceremoniously lost in a member vs. member matchup following redistricting.  This past August, after years of abusing her staff, the House Ethics Committee finally reprimanded her for repeated misuse of official resources.  CREW sought more severe legal consequences, including a criminal inquiry. Reports of her alleged retaliation against staffers in the aftermath of the Ethics Committee investigation only underscored our concerns.  

We can’t afford to wait for ethically-challenged members to retire, run for another position, or be redistricted out of office.  Bad behavior by our elected officials that goes unpunished is bound to be repeated and copied.  While some of the most unethical members are on their way out, without stronger ethics enforcement, we can only imagine what the next crop of corrupt members of Congress will try to get away with.

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