Historically, indictments tough to overcome

History shows that members of Congress with an indictment hanging over their heads are almost certain to lose their seats — a cautionary tale not only for House Republicans tied to lobbyist Jack Abramoff but the entire GOP conference as a whole.

Republicans with Abramoff ties who could be indicted in the coming weeks include Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, a target of a Justice Department probe. But a handful of other members have or are suspected of having ties to Abramoff and are watching intently as the events unfold.

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has been indicted in a state court on money-laundering charges related to a political committee suspected of channeling corporate money into Texas elections illegally, but so far DeLay has not been indicted for his ties to Abramoff.

While the Congressional Research Service does not keep a tally of all members of Congress ever indicted, anecdotal evidence suggests that the vast majority of indicted members either step down or lose at the polls, a CRS official said.

“It’s usually a killer for your political career to be indicted,” said the official, who declined to speak openly because of the ongoing, Abramoff-related investigations. “If a member’s under indictment and stands for reelection … it really casts such a pall over them.

“The party — they’re worried about losing the seat. They really want someone else to run for that seat. And [members] often feel tremendous pressure to resign.”

Don Ritchie, a historian with the Senate’s Historical Office, estimated that only 10 senators in the nation’s history have been indicted, beginning with Ohio’s John Smith in 1808.

More recently, Ritchie noted, Sen. David Durenberger (R-Minn.) was indicted in 1993 and 1994 for filing fraudulent reimbursement claims. The senator did not seek reelection in 1994.

Most of the indictments, Ritchie said, dealt with “financial mismanagement.”

Smith was accused of conspiracy for what modern-day lawyers might consider treason: he was trying to form a new nation in the western part of the country.

Several House members’ careers have been short-circuited by lengthy investigations, guilty pleas or convictions, including Reps. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who resigned last year after he admitted to taking millions of dollars in bribes, and Jay Kim, who lost a primary in 1998, some six years after taking $250,000 in illegal campaign contributions. Both are California Republicans.

Rep. James Traficant, an Ohio Democrat, was expelled from Congress in 2002 after a conviction for bribery, tax evasion and racketeering. Later that year, he launched a failed effort from prison to win back his seat as a write-in candidate.

But an indictment alone has also proved damaging — most famously, perhaps, when veteran Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) was thrown out of his strongly Democratic Chicago seat amid the 1994 investigations of the House post office.

Moreover, the 1994 election shows, the indictment of just a few members can precipitate an avalanche of incumbent losses, which is what Democrats who continue to lambaste Republicans for creating a “culture of corruption” hope will happen in 2006.

The post office and concurrent check-kiting scandals, for instance, led to the indictments of just seven lawmakers, none of whom is still in Congress. But Democrats lost 54 House seats in the subsequent Republican takeover.

This year, Democrats say that if their strategy works they may pick up seats that extend far beyond Ney’s or DeLay’s districts. One Democratic official in Washington said Colo.-7, Ohio-15, Fla.-22 and N.M.-1 top the party’s list of possible pickups.

Ney spokesman Brian Walsh declined to speculate on his boss’s plans if he is indicted.

“I’m not going to go down that path,” Walsh said.

Walsh said that at a recent rally in Zanesville, Ohio, GOP officials had pledged their support to Ney. Later this week, he added, the congressman will announce his reelection bid for a seventh term.

Criminal misconduct has not always meant premature retirement.

In 1789, Rep. Matthew Lyon of Vermont won reelection after being imprisoned for a conviction on sedition. In 1956, Rep. Thomas Lane won reelection despite having spent four months in prison for tax evasion; he served until 1963.

Rep. Joseph McDade (R-Pa.) was indicted in 1992 on charges that he accepted gifts from defense companies in exchange for contracts. But he managed to stay in office for the better part of the decade; McDade was exonerated in 1996.

Still, Democrats are confident that the growing pool of indictments or possible indictments bodes well for them.