WASHINGTON – In the last month, the FBI raided businesses owned by two members of Congress, forcing the Republican representatives to step down from key committee assignments and join a growing number of lawmakers targeted and even jailed by aggressive federal investigations.
Most recently, FBI agents raided an insurance business owned by the wife of Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz. Agents investigating a land deal involving a partner who is a Renzi campaign donor, searched the Sonoita, Ariz., business owned by Roberta Renzi. The lawmaker has denied any wrongdoing but stepped down from the House Financial Services, Natural Resources and Intelligence committees.
"For several weeks, I have been the subject of leaked stories, conjecture, and false attacks about a land exchange," Renzi said in a statement released by his congressional office on April 27. "None of them bear any resemblance to the truth, including the rumor that I am planning on resigning."
Just two weeks earlier, FBI agents raided a consulting business owned by the wife of Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., whose ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff have been under investigation. His wife, Julie Doolittle, who ran the business out of the couples’ Northern Virginia home, has denied wrongdoing and told reporters she has been cooperating with the FBI in the ongoing Abramoff investigation.
After the story went public, Doolittle announced he would temporarily step down from his seat on the House Appropriations Committee.
These searches occurred nearly a year after FBI agents raided the Capitol Hill office of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., as part of an ongoing bribery investigation. It was the first ever raid of a representative's Capitol Hill office, and followed a search of his home, where agents found $90,000 stashed in a freezer.
"The whole notion of raiding government officials is probably a comparatively new type of battle" in the Justice Department's response to possible legislative branch corruption, said Bruce Gronbeck, distinguished professor of public address at the University of Iowa.
But the tactic is likely to continue.
"To the extent that warrants are secured and legitimate tactics in enforcing the laws in the legislative branch are being used," the feds will keep investigating lawmakers, said Mark Wrighton, a professor of politics at the University of New Hampshire. The raids, properly conducted, are a means of making sure that this Congress is "not above the law."
The latest probes follow recent convictions and sentencing of two members of Congress on federal charges. Former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, is doing time for making false statements and conspiracy relating to the Abramoff scandal, and former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham is in a federal prison for bribery in an unrelated corruption investigation involving private defense contractors and government officials.
So far, 11 people have been convicted in the Abramoff investigation, the most recent being Mark Zarchares, a former aide to Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, and Steve Griles, a former Interior Department official.
Beth Daley, director of investigations for the Project on Government Accountability, said a "culture of sleazy corruption" has taken over Washington, D.C., and prompted federal investigators to put more resources into public corruption cases.
"I think we’ll definitely see more, just because of the fact that the FBI has taken such a strong interest in this area," Daley said.
But while the number of raids and convictions seem to be coming at an extraordinary pace in Washington these days, political junkies say this isn’t the only time the Beltway has been jammed with casualties from a federal or congressional probe.
"We're living in a time where there is increased attention on corruption in Congress," Daley said. ‘Whether it is worse than any other time in the history of the United States I don’t know."
The following blasts from the past are examples of the long history behind federal probes:
Teapot Dome Scandal
In 1929, Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall became the first Cabinet member in the history of the United States to do prison time as the result of a government corruption investigation. His incarceration is a big part of why President Warren G. Harding’s administration is known as one of the most corrupt in history.
Fall had been found guilty of bribery after he took money in return for leasing out oil rights on government-owned oil fields to private oil magnates. The leasing was legal, but taking money and gifts in exchange for the no-bid deals was not.
His conviction followed years of a grueling Senate committee investigation and numerous federal criminal cases brought by two special counsels — the first in U.S history — as well as a U.S Supreme Court ruling that Congress had the right to compel testimony. In this case, the then-Bureau of Investigations, now the FBI, was accused of corruption and attempting to frame witnesses in the scandal.
Frequently mentioned as historical precedent for the wide-ranging Abramoff scandal, a U.S senator, six members of the House of Representatives, the mayor of Camden, N.J., members of the Philadelphia City Council and an inspector for the Immigration and Naturalization Service were convicted in the early 1980s as the result of a lengthy FBI sting.
In the operation, the FBI set up a phony company, Abdul Enterprises, Ltd., with FBI employees posing as Middle Eastern businessmen offering bribes to public officials at various locales. It was the first and last such FBI sting to trap members of Congress. The media dubbed it "Abscam" after the name of the company.
Abramoff and Beyond
In a deal made before he was convicted and imprisoned on fraud and corruption charges in 2006, Abramoff agreed to cooperate extensively with federal prosecutors. More members of Congress and others are expected to be put on the hot seat before the investigation is over.
"There are a few big fish still out there, people being talked about as having possible Abramoff ties," Daley said.
Abramoff and his lobbying associates have been accused of peddling influence with clients, using connections — culled largely with lavish, illegal gifts and trips — with members of Congress and their aides.
"All things being equal, Abramoff has talked to too many people and his fingers are in too many places for more people not to be affected," said Human Events Magazine political editor John Gizzi.
Meanwhile, former House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., is the subject of a probe into the congressmen’s relationship with a lobbying firm that has hired some of his former staff. Reports indicate the probe is tangentially related to the Cunningham case.
"(It’s) a challenge for the House Republican Conference because they can’t seem to put this behind them," Wrighton said. Daley and Gizzi concurred that it is not just Republicans wrapped up in the midst of the probes.
"It’s been going on for a long time and it will be going on for a long time after as long as men aren’t angels," Gizzi said.