Feinstein’s Cardinal shenanigans

Anyone who knows much about real power in Congress knows that almost every member of the House and Senate lusts after a seat on the Appropriations Committee and hopes one day to achieve the status of Cardinal. The Cardinals, of course, are the folks who chair the various Appropriations Committee subcommittees and literally control the billions of dollars that pass through their hands.

California Sen.  Dianne Feinstein (D) chairs the Senate Rules Committee, but she’s also a Cardinal. She is currently chairwoman of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies subcommittee, but until last year was for six years the top Democrat on the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies (or “Milcon”) sub-committee, where she may have directed more than $1 billion to companies controlled by her husband.

If the inferences finally coming out about what she did while on Milcon prove true, she may be on the way to morphing from a respected senior Democrat into another poster child for congressional corruption.

The problems stem from her subcommittee activities from 2001 to late 2005, when she quit. During that period the public record suggests she knowingly took part in decisions that eventually put millions of dollars into her husband’s pocket — the classic conflict of interest that exploited her position and power to channel money to her husband’s companies.

In other words, it appears Sen. Feinstein was up to her ears in the same sort of shenanigans that landed California Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R) in the slammer. Indeed, it may be that the primary difference between the two is basically that Cunningham was a minor leaguer and a lot dumber than his state’s senior senator.

Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsible Ethics in Washington, or CREW, usually focuses on the ethical lapses of Republicans and conservatives, but even she is appalled at the way Sen. Feinstein has abused her position. Sloan told a California reporter earlier this month that while”there are a number of members of Congress with conflicts of interest … because of the amount of money involved, Feinstein’s conflict of interest is an order of magnitude greater than those conflicts.”

And the director of the Project on Government Oversight who examined the evidence of wrongdoing assembled by California writer Peter Byrne told him that “the paper trail showing Senator Feinstein’s conflict of interest is irrefutable.”

It may be irrefutable, but she almost got away without anyone even knowing what she was up to. Her colleagues on the subcommittee, for example, had no reason even to suspect that she knew what companies might benefit from her decisions because that information is routinely withheld to avoid favoritism. What they didn’t know was that her chief legal adviser, who also happened to be a business partner of her husband’s and the vice chairman of one of the companies involved, was secretly forwarding her lists of projects and appropriation requests that were coming before the committee and in which she and her husband had an interest — information that has only come to light recently as a result of the efforts of several California investigative reporters.

This adviser insists — apparently with a straight face — that he provided the information to Feinstein’s chief of staff so that she could recuse herself in cases where there might be a conflict. He says that he assumes she did so. The public record, however, indicates that she went right ahead and fought for these same projects.

During this period the two companies, URS of San Francisco and the Perini Corporation of Framingham, Mass., were controlled by Feinstein’s husband, Richard C. Blum, and were awarded a combined total of over $1.5 billion in government business thanks in large measure to her subcommittee. That’s a lot of money even here in Washington.
Interestingly, she left the subcommittee in late 2005 at about the same time her husband sold his stake in both companies. Their combined net worth increased that year with the sale of the two companies by some 25 percent, to more than $40 million.

In spite of the blatant appearance of corruption, no major publication has picked up on the story, the Senate Ethics Committee has reportedly let her slip by, and she is now chairing the Senate Rules Committee, which puts her in charge of making sure her colleagues act ethically and avoid the sorts of conflicts of interest with which she is personally and so obviously familiar.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).