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Friday, November 25, 2005

Questions on the Legality of Campaign Fund-Raising - New York Times

Questions on the Legality of Campaign Fund-Raising - New York TimesNovember 25, 2005
Congressional Memo
Questions on the Legality of Campaign Fund-Raising

WASHINGTON, Nov. 24 - The American system of underwriting political campaigns is often derided as legalized bribery. Now the Justice Department is contending that it can amount to illegal bribery as well.

In pursuing a case that threatens to envelop Congress in an election-year lobbying scandal, federal prosecutors are arguing that campaign dollars and other perks routinely showered on lawmakers by those with legislative and political interests on Capitol Hill can reach the level of criminal misconduct.

The prosecutors say that among the criminal activities of Michael Scanlon, a former House leadership aide who pleaded guilty on Monday to bribery conspiracy, were efforts to influence a lawmaker identified in court papers only as Representative No. 1 with gifts that included $4,000 to his campaign account and $10,000 to a Republican Party fund on his behalf.

Lawyers and others who follow such issues say the case against Mr. Scanlon amounted to a shift by the Justice Department, which, they say, has generally steered clear of trying to build corruption cases around political donations because the charges can be hard to prove.

"The department has rarely charged campaign contribution cases," said Joseph E. diGenova, a defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor. "It would be a surprise that a contribution that has been lawfully reported" would lead to a criminal charge.

The case against Mr. Scanlon, who became wealthy in a partnership with the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, reaches far beyond the contributions to Representative No. 1. Court documents filed by prosecutors lay out an extensive conspiracy in which Mr. Scanlon and Mr. Abramoff, identified in the documents only as Lobbyist A, sought to defraud clients - mainly Indian tribes with gambling interests - and win legislative help from lawmakers in exchange for campaign donations, trips, dinners, greens fees and jobs.

Watchdog groups and some lawmakers say the emerging details of how at least one set of well-connected lobbyists operated should help build momentum for changes in lobbying rules. And, they say, the case demonstrates that the Justice Department shares their longstanding contention that campaign contributions can be used to game the system.

"I think the Justice Department wants to show that there is a line that can be crossed," said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Others say a vast majority of lawmakers are committed to operating within the rules that already exist and in any event would not be easily swayed by the attentions of special interests, no matter how generous.

"Contributions can only take you so far," said former Senator John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat who has relocated to a K Street law firm and is now advising clients on lobbying strategy. "I tell them, 'Look, you can give to an elected official and take them to lunch, dinner and breakfast. But if you are asking them to vote yes on an issue and they have 2,000 letters from home telling them to vote no, then you have a problem.' "

Representative Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican who has acknowledged being Representative No. 1, dismisses any suggestion that he was persuaded to do Mr. Scanlon's bidding because of campaign aid or perks like meals, entertainment or overseas travel.

"Whenever Representative Ney took official action," a statement from his office said, "actions similar to those taken by elected representatives every day as part of the normal, appropriate government process, he did so based on his best understanding of what was right and not based on any improper influence."

But the scrutiny of Mr. Ney has caught the attention of anxious lawmakers who have lobbying relationships of their own. It has also spurred advocacy groups. The campaign finance watchdog Democracy 21, for instance, is calling for inquiries by the House and Senate ethics committees into whether three dozen other members of Congress received contributions in exchange for intervening on behalf of a client of Mr. Abramoff.

The Associated Press reported this month that various lawmakers of both parties had asked the Interior Department to reject a casino application from a tribe that was a rival to one of Mr. Abramoff's clients. The lawmakers later received campaign aid from the tribe and Mr. Abramoff. Among the beneficiaries was the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, who received a $5,000 contribution to his political action committee shortly after sending a letter to the department in 2002.

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Mr. Reid, said Mr. Abramoff and the donation had had nothing to do with the position of the senator, who Mr. Manley noted was an author of Indian gaming laws and an opponent of new Indian casinos. "There was absolutely no connection between the letter and the contributions," he said.

Federal law requires that to prove bribery, the government must establish that a "thing of value" was provided in a direct effort to obtain a specific official act - the essential quid pro quo. A more vague expectation that something like a contribution might influence a public official has been deemed insufficient.

Mr. diGenova and others said that as a result, the Justice Department had been reluctant to try to link official actions to political donations, leaning instead toward cases in which public officials had been personally enriched.

Those watching the current case see Mr. Scanlon's decision to cooperate in the continuing investigation of Mr. Abramoff and others as a crucial link to the possibility of further charges: as an insider, he could conceivably provide evidence of a strong tie between efforts to influence lawmakers and their official actions.

Criminal charges aside, some watchdogs and members of Congress say they hope that public exposure of lobbying abuse stirs the Congressional ethics committees to police lawmakers more aggressively and that it simultaneously builds support for tighter lobbying restrictions.

"I think most Americans play by the rules and expect their leaders in government to do the same," said an author of one such proposal, Representative Martin T. Meehan, Democrat of Massachusetts. "It is time for Congress to clean up its act."

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