Ethics Get Waterboarded in Pelosi’s Swamp

Pelosi photoAt her press conference last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stated that she had learned of waterboarding in 2003, contradicting her earlier claims. Pelosi’s lie is getting the attention it deserves, but getting less attention is her remarkable explanations for her actions. At several points, she stated that her goal was to elect a Democratic Congress and a new president. She seemed to plead with the reporters to understand that torture was most important as an issue with which to defeat Republicans.

Well then, if the torture issue is a political weapon, and its actual practice is of secondary concern, we must ask the question about Pelosi’s sincerity when it comes to Congressional ethics. After all, she promised to “drain the swamp.” Democrats have a majority in large part because of the ethics issue.

While Pelosi dissembled before reporters, a firestorm raged around Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), her unsuccessful candidate for Majority Leader. Sparked by a series of articles by Carol Leonnig in the Washington Post about Murtha’s “Airport for No One” and his nephew’s no-bid defense contracts, the situation seemed to be reaching some kind of tipping point.

The New York Times editorialized that it is time to “follow the money” and called for an ethics committee investigation.  The National Republican Campaign Committee started running ads in the districts of Democrats who voted for the stimulus plan that includes $800,000 to repave the runway that no one uses. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), called for Murtha to step down as Chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, and set up an online petition.

All this apparently emboldened Murtha’s defeated 2008 opponent to come out and charge that during the campaign Murtha’s top aide threatened to have him recalled to active U.S. Army duty.

Meanwhile, the House Ethics Committee hired a woefully unqualified staff director, after leaving the post vacant for eight months, perhaps precluding any real inquiry of either Murtha or House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY). Charlie is so confident of his exoneration that he filed the pending ethics complaint against himself.

This widening of the ethics issue outside of Congress, while Pelosi chokes off investigations within, means that the swamp water will only get higher. She will be even harder pressed to explain away the corruption now that her own character and ethics are under scrutiny.

Pelosi’s hypocrisy on ethics has surfaced in the past. We caught her violating the clearest and most basic law of all, the limits on campaign contributions.

In 2004, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) fined two Pelosi “leadership” political action committees in response to a Complaint filed by NLPC in 2002. Under conciliation agreements reached with the FEC, the two committees — PAC to the Future and Team Majority — had to pay $21,000.

House members may have “leadership PACs” in addition to their own campaign committee. The purpose of leadership PACs is to make contributions to the campaigns of other Congressional candidates. Team Majority made thirty-six contributions to candidates in the amount of $5,000 each, the legal limit, to candidates that already had received contributions from PAC to the Future.

NLPC alleged that Pelosi operated two leadership PACs in order to circumvent contribution limits. Leo McCarthy, the treasurer of both PACs and the former Lt. Governor of California, candidly admitted to Roll Call that the “main reason” for setting up the second PAC was to “give twice as much (sic) hard dollars.”

NLPC’s Complaint cited a second circumvention of the law, that of the limits on amounts donors may give to PACs. Team Majority, the newer PAC, reported sixteen contributions of $5,000 each from donors who also gave the maximum to Pelosi’s other PAC. Five of the donors gave to both PACs on the same day.

Within twenty-four hours of NLPC’s Complaint, Pelosi announced she would shut down Team Majority and retrieve contributions already made to candidates. Her surviving PAC, PAC to the Future, distributed $1.7 million to candidates during the 2001-2002 election cycle.

At the time, Pelosi was an outspoken advocate of campaign finance reform and Shays-Meehan, the companion bill to the McCain-Feingold legislation that became law. In January 2002, she asserted, “One threat to our Constitution, indeed to our participatory democracy, is the role of the special interest money in the political process today.”

At an April 2002 kick-off event in San Francisco for the so-called Campaign Finance Victory Tour, Common Cause President Scott Harshbarger proclaimed, “The cynics in Washington said we couldn’t beat the entrenched power of big money, and thanks to courageous, independent people like Nancy Pelosi, we started the job.”

Pelosi complained of “extremists in the Republican Party who have repeatedly tried to undermine campaign finance reform” and of “sneaky tactics employed by the Republicans” to weaken Shays-Meehan.

Pelosi was elected Democratic Whip on November 14, 2002 after Richard Gephardt (D-MO) announced he would step aside. She was propelled to the post in part by her ability to raise money for her colleagues. In addition to the  $1.7 million given to Democratic candidates by PAC to the Future, Pelosi also crisscrossed the country taking part in fundraisers that reportedly generated over $6 million.

photo credit: AP/Wide World