I received the following email from Mr. J. Randall Evans, the attorney for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, on June 24. (The previous correspondence is, in chronological order, at the end of this post, then here and here. Sorry I didn't get around to posting it back then--I was busy getting ready to get out of town, and at the time didn't have and still don't have much of a response to it, other than to say that we continue to stand by our story:
Today, Sunlight is posting an online poll asking the public if Congress is doing enough to address ethics and lobbying reform in the wake of recent scandals. We've posted one serious question and another one with a touch of humor: do you think it more likely that there would be a live sighting of Elvis before the current congressional leadership showed real leadership on the need for reform? (The poll is viewable here, and bloggers are encouraged to copy the source code and post it on their own sites.)
Why the cynical question? Here's a brief guide to the issue.
Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Roll Call gets all Howard Beale in his editorial today:
In all my years of watching Congress, I have never seen anything quite like what we have now. It may be a cliché, and it may be a partisan attack term, but it is also true: There is a culture of corruption across Capitol Hill. It still does not encompass the majority of Members and staffers, most of whom come here to do the right thing and to stay on the path. It may be true that the numbers of offenders, at least those directly breaking the law, are still roughly the same as in other comparable peer groups. But the problem is palpably worse. While there is plenty of illegality here — and I believe a wave of indictments will hit in the coming months — it is not what is illegal that is the outrage, to use the old phrase, but rather what is legal.
Ornstein goes on to list the honest graft through earmarking of [sw: Ken Calvert] (R-Calif.), [sw: Gary Miller] (R-Calif.), and [sw: Dennis Hastert] (R-Ill.) and the abuses of campaign contributions by Vito Fossella as recent examples of this corruption.
There simply is no ethical compass here. The fact that Hastert was responsible for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of the House ethics committee makes his own real estate actions even more wrongheaded. I don’t want Members of Congress and staffers to live ascetic or penurious lives. Lawmakers (and judges for that matter) ought to be paid at least as much as second-year associates in big law firms. (Currently they are not.) Still, when I look at the eagerness of Members to score big perks from their lobbyist friends and to find ways to make big bucks by transactions that are related to their behavior inside Congress, I cannot find any justification in the large pay gap with their peers. Illegal or not, much of this behavior is unethical and repugnant. It underscores the deep need for a real package of ethics, earmarking and lobbying reforms—which in turn underscores the shameful and pathetic behavior of the leaders in both chambers who have failed to act and who are trying to sneak through a sham bill. They hope journalists will tire of these stories and that voters won’t notice. I hope they are wrong.
"I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell - 'I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!' Things have got to change. But first, you've gotta get mad!"
I've been meaning to get a link up to this column from Greg Hinz, of Crain's Chicago Business, which takes a look at the timeline of House Speaker Dennis Hastert's real estate deal, and finds that ... well, see for yourself:
At the suggestion of longtime associate Dallas Ingemunson, the two and a partner bought another 69 acres adjoining the Hastert farm for $15,000 per. "We had confidence the market would hold," Mr. Ingemunson says. Besides, he adds, the seller wanted a quick cash deal, so they got a good price.
The New York Times editorializes on Speaker [sw: Dennis Hastert]'s (R-Ill.) land deal:
Dennis Hastert, the speaker of the House, promised credible reform back when the stench of illegal quid pro quo dealings between lobbyists and ethically challenged lawmakers seized public attention. But nothing close to true self-policing is emerging from Congress. And now Mr. Hastert is the latest lawmaker in the limelight for the rampant pork-barrel practice of earmarking — the swift, debate-free inclusion in mass appropriations bills of small fortunes in government favors for special pleaders. In the speaker's case, his $200 million earmark to advance a road project known as Prairie Parkway back home in Illinois became an acute embarrassment after local news media and critics discovered Mr. Hastert netted a fast $2 million profit from dealing in land situated several miles from the proposed roadway. ... But we can hope Mr. Hastert would see, at least in hindsight, the cloud that this activity has cast over Congress, which slipped 13,012 earmarks to passage this year worth $67 billion. That's a tripling of the pork trough since the Republicans won control of the House in 1994. Sometimes it seems as if earmarking is all this Congress knows how to do. Members have spent so few calendar days in Washington that they hark back to the "do-nothing" Congress excoriated six decades ago by President Harry Truman.
The Sunday Times editorial eloquently made Sunlight's point when it comes to the "scandal" of Dennis Hastert's earmarking for a local highway. It's the system that's rotten. Hastert is only one of the latest -- and most powerful -- to be caught with his hand in the veritable cookie jar. No doubt there are other stories to come along the same lines.
Hastert's early promises to clean up the system have proved to be nothing but empty rhetoric. Maybe, now that he's in the ethics spotlight, he'll be galvanized to action. The Hastert story that Bill Allison broke on his blog -- Under the Influence -- is the tip of the iceberg. As more stories are developed by bloggers, citizen muckrakers and the mainstream media, the pressure will mount to change the system in significant ways. And the good news is that none of us will be lulled into thinking that things have been improved if Congress moves forward on its current "reform" path.
Soapblox Chicago reminded me of something I'd beeen meaning to write about, but hadn't been able to find time to do, which is to address a little more fully whether there's any relationship between rapidly rising demand for land in Kendall County and the Prairie Parkway. I think, and have had a lot of people tell me, that the Parkway has been a significant factor for some development. And let's be clear about what that means: No one has said it's the only factor, or even that it's the primary factor, but that the planned corridor is attracting growth (some of which would have happened in the county anyway) to the rural stretch of Kendall County through which the Parkway will run.
The Aurora Beacon News reports that [sw: Dennis Hastert] (R-Ill.) is "miffed" at the allegations, first reported here at the Sunlight Foundation, that he improperly profited from a real estate deal while pushing for the Praire State Parkway. Hastert says, "There is no substance to it. I've been working on the Prairie Parkway probably for a good 18 years. That's a matter of record, it is not built. Nothing to it." An article by Joe Conason in Salon shows that what Hastert was doing has a long tradition in American politics going back to Tammany Hall:
A hundred years ago, George Washington Plunkitt, New York state senator and leader of the Tammany Democrats, explained how to profit from "honest graft."
Journalist William Riordon recorded the great grifter's immortal words in "Plunkitt of Tammany Hall," a classic volume that must be consulted by anyone who hopes to understand urban (and now suburban) politics.
"I seen my opportunities and I took 'em," Plunkitt famously boasted. The boss went on to discuss in detail exactly what he meant:
"My party's in power in the city, and it's goin' to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I'm tipped off, say, that they're going to lay out a new park at a certain place.
"I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before.
"Ain't it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit on my investment and foresight? Of course, it is. Well, that's honest graft.
"Or, supposin' it's a new bridge they're goin' to build. I get tipped off and I buy as much property as I can that has to be taken for approaches. I sell at my own price later on and drop some more money in the bank.
"Wouldn't you? It's just like lookin' ahead in Wall Street or in the coffee or cotton market. It's honest graft, and I'm lookin' for it every day in the year."
On Tuesday evening, we received the following reply to our previously issued open letter to J. Randolph Evans, who is "Counsel to Speaker J. Dennis Hastert." In that letter, we wrote in part, "we ask that you please identify the specific passages in the aforementioned story that you regard as actionable."
The text of both Mr. Evan's latest email and my response are reproduced below:
Sent: Tuesday, June 20, 2006 5:55 PM To: Bill Allison Subject: RE: Request for Further Information/Clarification
Dear Mr. Allison,
- The Washington Post and The Hill finally run stories on [sw: Dennis Hastert]'s land deal in Kendall County, Illinois. The Post story looks at Hastert's land deal along side the land deals of Reps. [sw: Ken Calvert] (R-Calif.) and [sw: Gary Miller] (R-Calif.). Both Calvert and Miller made large sums of money off of land that they helped, through the earmarking process, become more profitable. Their stories are here and here respectively.
- New tax records show that Rep. [sw: Alan Mollohan] (D-W.Va.) steered $179 million in federal earmarks to companies that contributed to charities that he is associated with. According to Bloomberg, "The money went to 21 companies and nonprofit groups that contributed $225,427 to the Robert H. Mollohan Family Charitable Foundation in 2004 -- almost half of the charity's revenue". Charities connected to politicians (or spouses of politicians) are a way for companies and interests to curry favor from a legislator out of the public eye. Numerous lawmakers have used their charities inappropriately including Senators Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) and Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). I'm sure that there are many more political charity abuses that go unnoticed.
- The Senate Indian Affairs Committee just released their final report on the Jack Abramoff tribal scandal, "Gimme Five -- Investigation of Tribal Lobbying Matters". The Arizona Republic reported this morning that the report is expected to "read more like a summer mystery novel with chapters missing than a tell-all account of former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff's corrupt influence in Washington." Since Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) refused to call members of Congress to testify before his committee those "missing chapters" will have to be filled in by the Justice Department and our courts.
- Most members of Congress do not read the bills that they vote on. Rep. [sw: John McHugh] (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee personnel subcommittee, did not know that a provision existed in a bill that he crafted that he "philosophically" opposed. Oops. Maybe we should pay attention next time. Or we could make bills available 72 hours before they are voted on (as Readthebill.org is pushing) so that maybe somebody else could have caught what John McHugh didn't.