Watchdog spotlights lawmaker ethics in 'most corrupt' report

Nineteen lawmakers are listed as either violating the law or showing a lack of regard for congressional ethics and rules in a government watchdog group’s annual report on the “Most Corrupt” members of Congress.

The seventh annual report released Tuesday by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) lists 14 members — 10 Republicans and 4 Democrats — as having allegedly violated congressional ethics rules or criminal laws, such as illegally garnering campaign contributions or failing to disclose accurate financial records.

The report, which is based off media articles, public financial and travel records and court documents, also gives “dishonorable mentions” to 5 lawmakers — 3 Democrats and 2 Republicans — for allegedly using their office for personal gain.

“CREW’s definition of corruption goes beyond assessing whether someone technically violated a criminal law,” the report states. “It encompasses public officials who fail to act responsibly and ethically, and who instead place personal or special interests before those of the public.”

Melanie Sloan, the executive director for CREW, said the most shocking instances for her were Reps. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), and Charlie Bass (R-N.H.) because they so clearly broke the law.

The report alleges that Bass used his elected position as a member of Congress to make money for himself and his nephew by supporting legislation in 2006 that provided federal support for a renewable energy company in which they both allegedly had a financial stake. Congress did not appropriate money to support the particular provision in the legislation, which passed, according to the report.

Grimm, a former FBI agent and Marine, is detailed in the report as using U.S. Marine and FBI insignias in a campaign fundraiser invitation, television commercial and advertisement on the Internet without first gaining proper authorization.

Sloan pointed to the report as evidence that Congress should revamp its ethics enforcement process, which she said is highly politicized.

“It would nice if the House and Senate would recognize that they have broader problems and be more aggressive about enforcement,” said Sloan in an interview. “I think a few aggressive enforcement cases really has a big deterrent effect on members of Congress.”

“House Ethics still doesn’t do a tolerable job of policing. I think it is so politicized. It’s been a long time since they’ve been able to make decisions purely based on the facts.”

Also listed in the report are Reps. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.), Frank Guinta (R-N.H.), Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), Laura Richardson (D-Calif.), David Rivera (R-Fla.), Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.).

Listed under their “dishonorable mentions” category were Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), Shelley Berkeley (D-Nev.), Sanford Bishop Jr. (D-Ga.), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) and Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), whom Sloan said was the “most shameful” instance in the report.

Denham is described in the report as transferring $200,000 from a former state Senate campaign account as a loan to a charity organization benefiting veterans. The charity then ran advertisements with Denham promoting a concert for the veterans group. After his election, Denham reportedly forgave the loan. The report alleges that he used the in-kind contribution of the charity group’s promotion to help gain election; the Federal Election Commission dismissed the allegations last month.

“All of the ads with Denham surrounded by veterans run three weeks before the Republican primary, so he’s all over television and radio as the 'veterans guy' using corporate money that would be illegal in an actual campaign ad,” explained Sloan. “And then he gets elected and forgives the loan. Really, it’s just despicable.”

The report also details several allegations against Berkley, who is entrenched in the beginning stages of what is expected to be a bitter campaign for one of her state’s Senate seats in 2012. 

Berkley will likely face Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and is fending off a series of allegations first raised by The New York Times that center around her legislative support of a medical center where her husband works.

Meeks is being investigated by the House Ethics Committee over allegations that he failed to disclose a payment he had received in 2007. The panel dismissed a separate charge against Meeks last month after it found that he was not guilty of accepting an improper loan in 2010.

Also in August, the committee dismissed allegations that Schmidt had the Turkish Coalition of America (TCA) pay approximately $500,000 of her legal bills. The panel found that those allegations were true, but that Schmidt’s lawyers “failed to inform her of their payment arrangement with TCA, and made false and misleading statements to her about their relationship with TCA,” according to a statement released at the time.

Of the 19 lawmakers listed in the report, six of those are freshmen, including Walsh. The report states that Walsh allegedly made inaccurate statements on his financial disclosure forms and court financial filing records. Walsh owes his ex-wife more than $100,000 in child support payments, and the report argues that it does not reflect creditably on the House, especially while he was able to loan $35,500 to his campaign committee.

A county judge in Illinois ruled last week that Walsh has to explain why he is so far behind making his child support payments, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

—This story was last updated at 5:20 p.m.