Inside Washington: Democrats Hit Ethics Pothole
Freshman Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill., is only the latest embarrassment.
Senate Democrats accepted Burris because they believed what he told them: He was clean. Burris now admits he tried to raise money for Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who authorities say sought to sell President Barack Obama's former Senate seat. And Burris is on the defensive, pleading with constituents to avoid what he calls "a rush to judgment."
"The story seems to be changing day by day," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Wednesday.
The political mess for the Democratic Party, however, isn't Burris' conduct alone; it's the pattern that has developed so quickly over the past few months.
-The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., is the subject of a House ethics investigation. It's partly focused on his fundraising practices for a college center in his name, his ownership financing of a resort property in the Dominican Republic and his financial disclosure reports.
-Federal agents raided two Pennsylvania defense contractors that were provided millions of dollars in federal funding by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.
-Blagojevich was arrested Dec. 9 on federal charges, including allegations he schemed to sell the Senate seat to the highest bidder.
-Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader from South Dakota, abandoned his bid to become health and human services secretary and the administration's point man on reforming health care; and Nancy Killefer stepped down from a newly created position charged with eliminating inefficient government programs.
Both Daschle and Killefer had tax problems, and Daschle also faced potential conflicts of interest related to working with health care interests.
-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was confirmed after revealing he had tax troubles.
-Obama's initial choice for commerce secretary, Bill Richardson, stepped aside due to a grand jury investigation into a state contract awarded to his political donors.
-While the Senate voted overwhelmingly to confirm William Lynn as deputy defense secretary, Obama had to waive his ethics regulations to place the former defense lobbyist in charge of day-to-day operations at the Pentagon.
The No. 2 Senate Democrat, Richard Durbin of Illinois, expressed his anger about the Burris case Wednesday while he was on an official visit to Greece.
"I do believe that the public statements made by Mr. Burris to this point have raised questions ... as to the nature of his relationship with the former governor and the circumstances surrounding his appointment," Durbin said.
Reid said in Nevada, "Now there's some question as to whether or not he told the truth."
Where to go next? Reid had no answer.
"What I think we have to do is just wait and see," the Senate leader said.
Senate Democrats now may be trapped in their own ethics system. Disciplinary action against a senator usually requires a long investigation by the Senate's ethics committee. While a preliminary inquiry on Burris is under way, that's only the first early step. And, with ongoing criminal investigations in Illinois, the committee probably would have to postpone any action - as it usually does - to avoid interference.
In 2006, Republicans lost control of the House after Democrats effectively used a "culture of corruption" theme against them.
The final scandal broke shortly before the election, when it was revealed that then-Rep. Mark Foley, a Florida Republican, sent sexually suggestive e-mails and explicit instant messages to teenage boys who had served as House pages.
Republicans were further harmed when it was disclosed that several of their members were aware of the problem and failed to take action.
Democrats, who've been in control of both Congress and the White House less than two months now, are lucky on one point. The next congressional election is nearly two years away.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Larry Margasak has covered Congress, including major ethics investigations, since 1983.