Is the Justice Department Covering Up Congressional Corruption?

Mollohan photoEthics groups are wondering whether the U.S. Department of Justice has become skittish when it comes to investigating members of Congress, after numerous congressional corruption investigations were closed without trial last year, reported the New York Times.

Since the department’s case against the late Rep. Ted Stevens (R-AK) notoriously fell apart two years ago, officials have halted at least five other corruption investigations against high-profile congressmen, including Rep. Don Young (R-AK) and Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-WV), in photo.

“They’re gun-shy,” J. Gerald Hebert, the executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, told the New York Times. The Rep. Stevens case, which collapsed after the Justice Department was found to be suppressing evidence that might have weakened its allegations, was a major embarrassment for department officials.

But the DOJ vigorously denied that it was avoiding prosecuting prominent lawmakers out of fear of a similar mishap.

“It’s just not the case that anyone is gun-shy,” Lanny Breuer, the assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division who oversees the Public Integrity Section at the Justice Department, told the Times. “If a case cannot be brought, it’s because we’ve taken a hard look and made the determination that this case cannot be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. And with all due respect to those outside the department, they haven’t seen the evidence. They don’t know the materials, and we’ve looked at it all.”

Ken Boehm, Chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC), which triggered the four-year probe of Mollohan, questioned the Justice Department’s assertion that it has had nothing to prosecute. Boehm said, “Even if you accept the premise that there were no underlying crimes in the Mollohan case, which I do not, Mollohan massively violated financial disclosure requirements under the Ethics in Government Act and the False Statements Accountability Act.”

Mollohan admitted as much in 2006 when he amended six year’s worth of his financial disclosure forms (1999-2004), after denying for two months that they contained errors. In its Complaint to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, NLPC identified more than 250 omissions and misrepresentations. Mollohan omitted more assets than he reported on his original filings, including his largest single asset, a note worth over $4 million.

Boehm continued, “As a result of our scrutiny, Rep. Charles Rangel similarly admitted that he failed to report hundreds of thousands in income and assets. This should be a no brainer for the Justice Department to prosecute, not to mention Rangel’s failure to pay his taxes.”

The department also argued that its conviction of crooked lobbyist Paul Magliocchetti last September is evidence that it hasn’t backed down from high-profile cases. Formerly an aide for the late Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), Magliocchetti later headed up the now-defunct PMA Group, which was discovered to be funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions to mostly Democratic lawmakers. But the department has yet to prosecute the members of Congress who allegedly obtained earmarks for PMA Group clients in return for campaign contributions.

Last May, the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent and bipartisan ethics review board that investigated lawmakers tied to the PMA group case, recommended that the Justice Department conduct a more in-depth examinations of Rep. Pete Vicslosky (D-IN) and Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-KS). So far, there have been no signs that department officials are pursuing the board’s advice.

And while department officials told the Times that political status has no influence over whether a case will be pursued, others who are familiar with the DOJ found this claim unlikely.

“I don’t think there is any question that the decision to charge a sitting member of Congress is going to get far more scrutiny and it’s going to be agonized over by a lot more people,” Peter Zeidenberg, a former public integrity prosecutor, told the Times.

Zeidenberg also noted that prosecuting members of Congress has become more difficult recently due to federal court rulings. However, the Times pointed out that the particular cases dismissed by the DOJ don’t appear to have been impacted by these legal developments.

Alana Goodman is NLPC’s Capitol Hill Reporter