In a cover story for the National Journal dated tomorrow, Shane Goldmacher reports on accusations by members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) that ethics investigations are disproportionately aimed at African-American lawmakers.
The lengthy article includes an account of our exposé of Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), and my response to the suggestion that black members of Congress are being targeted. From the article:
No single case has ensnared more black lawmakers than a 2008 trip to the Caribbean island of St. Maarten. As lawmakers boarded planes for the three-day beachside conference, Flaherty, camera in hand, was close on their heels.
Flaherty, president of the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative watchdog group, showed up at the meeting, snapped some photos, and handed the exclusive on a corporate-funded junket to the New York Post. (House rules forbid business interests from picking up such tabs; the corporate sponsors of the Caribbean conference hung their banners from the rafters.) The story spread to other media, and soon the ethics watchdogs in Congress had sunk their teeth into a full-blown investigation. Along the way, Flaherty offered up his pictures, audio recordings, and a copy of the program to help make the case.
All told, investigators probed six black members for two different island jaunts. All but one were ultimately cleared of knowingly receiving a corporate-paid trip. The exception was Rangel, whose staff was proven to have known that corporations were footing the bill; he was admonished.
Flaherty, who served as chairman of Citizens for Reagan in the 1980s, said that House ethics investigators would not have been aware of the trip if not for his efforts. “The only way an outside group like our own can get any traction is if you get it out into the media bloodstream, and then the Ethics Committee can’t ignore them,” he said.
The National Legal and Policy Center has proved particularly adept at using the media echo chamber, especially through its almost symbiotic relationship with the New York Post. The group pushed portions of the Rangel probe that led to his censure (including dispatching a Spanish-speaking sleuth to the Dominican Republic to investigate his property there). More recently, the center has been digging into Meeks’s finances. Flaherty openly bragged about placing pieces critical of Meeks in The New York Times, the New York Post, and the New York Daily News.
“They know how this game is played,” Meeks said in an interview, predicting his eventual full exoneration. “They know what they’re doing, and they manipulate it to the fullest extent.” He emphasized that “a disproportionate number” of the center’s recent targets-those on the Caribbean trip, Rangel, himself and, before that, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson Sr.-are black.
Flaherty defended his track record, saying that the misdeeds he uncovers are real. “We’ve hit plenty of white crooks,” he added, naming past reports on former Rep. Alan Mollohan and Pelosi, both Democrats.
Flaherty makes no apologies for his role. “They really are influenced by the forces around them,” he said of congressional ethics officials. “Left to their own devices, they’d probably do nothing.”
It is this last point that makes the CBC charges so puzzling. The Ethics Committee traditionally has been ineffective. The establishment of the Office of Congressional Ethics in 2008 was a small positive because it means that more cases now get referred to the Ethics Committee, and those cases get some media attention. But it is laughable to suggest that ethics enforcement in Congress is overzealous, whether the racial dimension is factored in or not.
The article did not discuss the role of the ultimate ethics enforcer, the Department of Justice. Under Attorney General Eric Holder, a series of important cases involving members of Congress have been dropped or covered up. Rangel admitted to not paying his taxes, and admitted to leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars in income and assets of his financial disclosure forms. These are crimes, yet there has been no criminal prosecution.
Likewise, Mollohan admitted to omitting millions of dollars in assets from his forms, yet the Justice Department simply closed a four-year-old investigation without comment shortly after Mollohan voted for ObamaCare.
Photo: Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY)