Democrats Under Ethics Cloud Benefit From Distracted Public

Allegations of ethics violations by a handful of Democrats in recent months reached something of a crescendo this week as two prominent members of Congress were accused of corruption.

California Rep. Jane Harman denied allegations that she offered to help seek reduced charges for two pro-Israel lobbyists suspected of espionage in exchange for help from a pro-Israel donor, also suspected Israeli agent, in lobbying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to give Harman a key chairmanship.

And California Sen. Dianne Feinstein denied that she devised legislation that helped her husband get a federal contract to sell foreclosed properties at compensation rates higher than the industry norms.

But the latest cases, which involve Democrats, did not make the same splash that corruption allegations did a few years ago, when Republicans were on the receiving end of the finger-pointing.

Some Republican analysts attribute the difference to timing.

Democrats have benefited from an "Obama media cycle," said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, who served as an aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

Reporters are struggling to keep up with the Obama administration and all the crises it's grappling with, Bonjean told

In addition, he said, the media and the public have become more desensitized to allegations of corruption against lawmakers after the ones against Republicans.

GOP consultant Joe Gaylord, who served as an aide to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, told he believes GOP values and principles played a role in garnering more attention to ethics accusations against Republican lawmakers.

"Republicans who have generally used the ethics process become much more susceptible to the hypocrisy charges because they set a high standard for how people should behave," he said. "Then when a Republican doesn't behave properly, it becomes a bigger story."

A succession of reports and scandals against congressional Republicans ranging from pay-to-play schemes to salacious affairs began more than four years ago when then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was questioned about his overseas travel and ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was under federal investigation. Ohio Rep. Bob Ney also got entangled in the Abramoff scandal, and ended up in jail.

Another Republican, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, resigned his California seat in 2005 after pleading guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes and underreporting his income for 2004.

In 2006, Florida Rep. Mark Foley resigned when it was learned that he had exchanged raunchy e-mails with a teenage boy who was a former congressional page. In 2007, Idaho Sen. Larry Craig was arrested and pleaded guilty to an undercover sex sting in a men's bathroom at a Minneapolis airport. All five lawmakers are gone from office now.

The cumulative effect of these incidents created a perception that Republicans were ethically challenged. Even before Craig's "wide stance," Democrats were able to seize on the allegations and regain control of Capitol Hill in 2006, in part by repeating the mantra that they would wipe away the "culture of corruption" in Congress.

But in recent months, Democrats have fallen victim to similar allegations of corruption. While denying wrongdoing on Tuesday, Harman called for a federal investigation into why her conversations were being recorded and why they were leaked to the media.

The Office of Congressional Ethics, created by a House resolution on March , 11, 2008, also won't take up the Harman investigation, according to Roll Call, because the OCE rules prevent it from looking at any cases that arose before its creation.

Feinstein defended herself Wednesday by pointing out that her legislation to route $25 billion in taxpayer money to a government agency that reportedly awarded her husband's real estate firm a lucrative contract never was enacted into law.

Another Democrat, Pennsylvania Rep. Jack Murtha, is facing a federal probe for purportedly steering defense appropriations to clients of KSA Consulting, which employed his brother Robert, and the PMA Group, founded by Paul Magliocchetti, a former senior staffer on the Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Defense.

New York Rep. Charlie Rangel is being investigated by the House Ethics Committee in at least four areas, including his reported failure to properly report income taxes on a Caribbean villa in the Dominican Republic; use of four, rent-controlled apartments in Harlem; questions about an offshore firm asking Rangel for special tax exemptions; and whether Rangel improperly used House stationery to solicit donations for a school of public affairs named after him at City College of New York.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the main difference between the current Democratic scandals and the ones that routed the Republicans is that now "it's not one big scandal easily understood."

She explained that many of ethics accusations against Republicans a few year ago were linked to Abramoff. "It was one issue," she said. "Now we're looking at lots of different little issues."

But she warned that the allgegations against Democrats could add up to a death by a thousand cuts.

"The Democrats have something to worry about here," she said. "There will be a critical mass when it will look like Democrats have a huge ethical problem. And the Democrats who have not been taking the problems very seriously ignore them at their peril."

Bonjean when it comes to rallying voter outrage "timing is everything." Right now, the focus of anti-tax tea partiers and others critical of Washington is on government spending, bank bailouts, legal rights for terror suspects and Bush administration-era interrogation techniques.

"There's only so much oxygen in the room for what it is that's going to get covered and what becomes important," added Gaylord. "And in this age, when there is a crisis a minute ... it moves the individual activities of congressmen and congresswomen, no matter how corrupt it might be, down on the scale of importance.

"The Obama administration, with everything it is changing, is providing cover for Democratic corruption," he said.