Saturday, May 27, 2006

Feds Ratchet Up Investigations of Congress


For Congress, the line that separates illegal conduct from business as usual may be shifting.

WASHINGTON — Forgive House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) for seeming a bit paranoid.

With grand juries convened around the country and hundreds of FBI agents on the case, Congress has become the focal point of the most aggressive investigations into federal corruption in decades.

One investigation has led to an eight-year prison sentence for former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a Republican from Rancho Santa Fe. And a bribery probe targeting Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) boiled into a constitutional confrontation this week after the FBI conducted an unprecedented search of his Capitol Hill office — and departed with two cartons of documents and extensive computer records.

After House leaders, including Hastert, demanded that the documents be returned, ABC News reported that Hastert was "in the mix" of another corruption investigation.

The speaker charged that the Justice Department was trying to intimidate him. The White House called his accusation "false, false, false," and the Justice Department denied it was looking into Hastert.

Almost lost in the recent flurry has been the investigation into former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty this year to conspiring to bribe members of Congress. Four Abramoff associates have pleaded guilty to crimes; a fifth is on trial in federal court.

Abramoff, the erstwhile intimate of top congressional Republicans, is talking to FBI agents looking for evidence that lawmakers took bribes. At the FBI, boxes are filling with letters and transcripts of e-mails from members, aides and lobbyists relating to trips, deals and political requests.

"It is certainly unprecedented in recent history," said Randall D. Eliason, a former chief of the public corruption unit in the U.S. attorney's office in Washington. "You have to go back to Abscam to think about a time when there were this many high-level public officials being looked at."

Eliason was referring to the case in the late 1970s and early 1980s in which several members of Congress were convicted on bribery charges after being caught on videotape accepting cash from FBI employees posing as Middle Eastern businessmen seeking political favors for a nonexistent sheik.

Even that scandal — which stemmed from a single FBI sting operation — pales in comparison to the latest bumper crop of investigations, Eliason said.

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