The Appropriate Culture of Corruption

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The New York Times reports today on what could be the next great lobbying scandal. After his house and offices were raided by the FBI, Paul Magliocchetti, top lobbyist at the PMA Group, is shuttering his lobby shop. Once seen as the top earmark factory in Washington, the PMA Group fell apart weeks before the FBI raid occurred as rumors circulated that Magliocchetti was under investigation for various reasons, including making fraudulent campaign contributions and potentially trading contributions and gifts for legislative actions–earmarks–from legislators.

According to the Times, Magliocchetti was a pioneer and master of the earmarking process who skirted as close to the ethical line as possible:

[S]everal former PMA lobbyists and former Congressional staff members, speaking anonymously for fear of retaliation from lawmakers close to Mr. Magliocchetti, said that for decades he sought loopholes to shower food, drink and gifts on the members and staff members of the House defense appropriations subcommittee.

He regularly arranged food deliveries for late-working committee staff members, for example, taking advantage of an exception written into the fine print of the ethics code, the former PMA lobbyists and Congressional staff members said. And each year he hosted lawmakers and their staff members at a legendary Christmas party at the Alpine or, more recently, at the Army Navy golf club, that fit into a gift-rule exception for “widely attended events.”

Mr. Magliocchetti helped pioneer the lucrative specialty of helping contractors lobby for military earmarks, the several billion dollars in pet spending items that members of the panel insert in annual spending bills, often with little oversight.

Many are beginning to question whether Magliocchetti is the new Jack Abramoff; the next lobbyist who could ensnare dozens in a corrupt conspiracy. My colleague Bill Allison offered his thoughts on the Magliocchetti-Abramoff comparison at the Real Time Investigations blog:

I’ve told a few people that while the PMA Group scandal is different from Abramoff, in many ways it’s more serious. Abramoff was a sort of Bernard Madoff character, unique in his personal excesses, corrosively corrupting, but still just one guy. PMA Group is a methodical business. It rakes in millions of dollars in lobbying fees. Its employees and PAC contributes a few hundred thousand to various congressional campaign committees and leadership PACs. Its clients get hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks and billions more in federal contracts. Abramoff’s excesses were fairly unique; PMA Group’s business model is standard operating procedure in Washington.

And for the most part I agree with this assessment. (Abramoff’s operation was tightly wound up in a racket to ensure the maintanence of power by then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay. So, he wasn’t quite a rogue grifter.) PMA Group’s excess highlights what one could call a “culture of corruption” that exists around the Appropriations Committee, most prominently in the House.

When we look at the scandals of the last few years, these Appropriations Committee members keep popping up. Duke Cunningham, Jerry Lewis, Alan Mollohan, and now, the Magliocchetti connected John Murtha. Others have come under close scrutiny for their practices including Bill Young, Hal Rogers, Pete Visclosky, and James Moran. It really is an epidemic when this many members of a single committee bring this kind of attention (in many cases, federal investigations) to themselves.

It’s doubtful that lawmakers, especially appropriators, want any sunshine shed on the relationships between appropriators and appropriations seeking lobbyists. Perhaps some stricter disclosure rules would help to stop the ethical tightrope walk that the appropriations process has become.

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  • What is most frustrating about the PMA story is the lack of reckoning for those who are voting down Jeff Flake’s consistent motions to begin an ethics investigation. It should be a no-brainer, regardless of party affiliation.

    I’m a North Carolina citizen who recently–very recently!–began tracking the North Carolina delegation. (In fact, Flake’s last motion re PMA was what kicked it all of.) With just a bit of digging I found that Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-NC3) received $133,710 from PMA and its clients since 1998–including $2000 from Paul and wife. Meanwhile, my representative (and chair of Homeland Security Approps), Rep. David Price (D-NC4) has taken $101,750 from PMA and its clients since 1998, and also put through an $800,000 earmark for a PMA client in the FY 2008 defense appropriations bill.

    Needless to say, both voted to table the motion. And, notably, Jones was one of just four Republicans to vote that way.

    Until there is a concerted and coordinated public effort to ask representatives why they oppose an investigation re PMA–and, more importantly, to follow the money!–this will remain another story confined to the marginalia of the Congressional record.

    Not good for transparency. Not good for the country.