Although he has plenty of competition, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) is generally regarded by watchdog groups as the most corrupt member of Congress. From Allen Stanford’s Ponzi schemes to Azerbaijan junkets to the unfolding House IT scandal, it seems like Meeks doesn’t miss a chance to get in on shady dealings.
Whether he can survive in office much longer will be determined by whether ethics enforcement mechanisms actually begin to function. It will depend on whether President Trump, and his appointees, follow through on his pledge to “drain the swamp” and whether House Republicans end their assault on the Office of Congressional Ethics, and instead get behind real reform.
Meanwhile, Meeks is up to his old tricks.
The Washington Free Beacon reported on January 30 that two of his campaign committees have paid a total of $168,000 since 2008 to a “company” owned by the wife of the chief of staff for his New York office. From the story:
Robert Simmons’ wife, Patsy, is listed as the treasurer for Friends for Gregory Meeks, the congressman’s campaign committee. Campaign committee treasurers are typically unpaid friends of the politician.
However, acting as treasurer has proved lucrative for Patsy Simmons. Patsy has profited quietly from Meeks’ campaign, earning more than $100,000 in a scheme revealed by the New York Post seven years ago.
Payments from Meeks’ campaign committee are not made out directly to Simmons. Instead, the committee cuts checks to Einna Inc., a company Patsy registered in 2008, according to New York business records.
Of course, the appearance is that Meeks is somehow benefitting. The work of a campaign treasurer is usually quite limited, and certainly not worth what Simmons or her company were paid.
A 2010 New York Times story titled “Rep. Meeks Cries Poor, but He Lives the Good Life” detailed how he eschewed bank accounts and preferred to deal in cash. In addition, we have placed him at various times in casinos on three different continents. We probably missed some.
Its not surprising that Meeks would be party to the arrangement with Simmons but that he could be so stupid. After all, he was exposed by the New York Post in 2010 doing the same thing. The only difference is that prior to Post story, the money was paid directly to Patsy Simmons. After the story, the money was paid her company. Tricky, huh?
According to the same Free Beacon article:
…Meeks purchased a new Lexus as a campaign vehicle. On Oct. 23, 2015, Meeks’ committee made a $13,722 down payment at a Lexus dealership in New York. The campaign has been making $968.60 monthly payments on the vehicle.
Driving in style courtesy of his campaign contributors is nothing new for Meeks. An audit by the Federal Election Commission of his campaign committee for 2003 and 2004 found that Meeks spend more than $20,000 on personal expenses, most of which was for personal use of an earlier Lexus, including “vehicle repair service, satellite radio and fees for custom license plates.”
Last month, one of Meeks’ political allies, a former New York State Senator named John Sampson, was sentenced to five years in prison. Between 1998 and 2008, Sampson allegedly embezzled approximately $440,000 from the foreclosure sales of four Brooklyn properties on which he was a court-appointed referee. The embezzlement charges were thrown out because the statute of limitations expired. The charges on which he was convicted relate to the cover-up.
Reportedly, the Sampson investigation was an extension of the investigation of Meeks prompted by newspaper headlines based on information provided by the National Legal and Policy Center. Beginning in 2010, we reviewed public documents connected to Meeks and his political network. Meeks was involved with a nonprofit called New Direction Local Development Corporation. Among other irregularities, the group raised money for Hurricane Katrina victims who never received the money. Newspaper headlines about New Direction, starting with a New York Post exposé on January 31, 2010, apparently prompted a series of overlapping investigations.
Sampson tried to replace some of the stolen funds with the proceeds of an unsecured $188,500 “loan” from Edul Ahmad. A Guyanese-American businessman. Ahmad pleaded guilty in 2012 in a multimillion-dollar mortgage fraud scheme.
Ahmad also “loaned” money to Meeks, who has extensive ties to Guyana. After the FBI started to scrutinize Meeks’ finances in 2010 after the New Direction stories, Meeks amended his Financial Disclosure Reports to show a $40,000 payment from Ahmad in 2007. Meeks claimed it was a loan, but there were no notes or payments until several years after the payment was made.
So why is Sampson on his way to prison and Meeks is still in the House? It’s very simple. Sampson held a state office. Meeks’ office is federal.
The indictment of a sitting Congressman requires the approval of the Attorney General. Meeks has been extraordinary lucky that for the last eight years the two Attorney Generals have been Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch. Both have strong ties to the Queens political machine and neither would ever allow the prosecution of Meeks.
Sampson was prosecuted by Preet Bharara, a Democrat whose made a name for himself by going after other Democrats, like presently, New York Mayor Bill Di Blasio. Bharara’s string of prosecutions of sitting officeholders in New York has been so popular that even before Donald Trump was sworn in, he announced that Bharara would stay as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Bharara has taken down the Speaker of New York Assembly, Sheldon Silver, and the State Senate President Dean Skelos, but he has not gone after two members of Congress who would seem to be sitting ducks for an ambitious prosecutor, Meeks or now-retired Rep. Charles Rangel.
Meeks has also been fortunate that the House Ethics Committee has functioned as it always has. Instead of enforcing House rules, it acts to protect incumbents from scrutiny and sanction.
When the Ahmad loan to Meeks was reported in the media, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW) in Government filed a Complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), not to be confused with the House Ethics Committee. CREW alleged that Meeks failure to disclose the loan was a violation to House Rules, an allegation with which the OCE would eventually agree. OCE went even further and concluded that the loan “appears to be a gift.” When Meeks’ amended his disclosure forms, it was in effect, an admission that he failed to report the loan previously. OCE referred this “slam dunk” of a rules violation to the House Ethics Committee in May 2011.
True to form, the Ethics Committee dismissed the allegation more than a year later, noting that “inadvertent errors” are “not uncommon” on financial disclosure reports. This was not the first time that the Committee failed to act in the face of conclusive evidence of Meeks’ rules violations.
In March 2011, NLPC filed a Complaint asking the Committee to investigate Meeks for paying $830,000 for a newly built home in 2006 that was worth more than $1.2 million. The Committee never acted or even acknowledged the Complaint, even though the deal received significant attention in the New York Times story mentioned above. The scheme bore similarities to the case of Republican Congressman Duke Cunningham who went to prison in 2005 for selling his house for an inflated price to facilitate a bribe.
In theory, the ultimate ethics enforcers are the voters. In practice, elections do not matter for Meeks. He, and three or so dozen other members of Congress, represent districts gerrymandered to ensure minority representation. There is a slight chance that these incumbents can be knocked off in a Democratic primary, as in the case last year of ex-Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida, serving in her twelfth term. At the time, I wrote that twenty-four years is an awfully long time to wait for the system to work.
Like Meeks, Brown had been in ethics trouble almost from the moment she stepped foot in Congress, but she skated from scandal to scandal. Meeks probably never expected a Trump presidency along with a GOP Congress, but he certainly knows that the Justice Department, the House Ethics Committee and the Federal Election Commission act only in the most egregious circumstances, and never apply statutes and regulations on a consistent basis.
The Republican Congress got off to a disgraceful start when it attempted its first order of business to gut of the limited authority enjoyed by OCE. The move prompted widespread disbelief, fueled by a Trump tweet, forcing the anti-OCE plotters to back off. Whether the House leadership finally grasps what happened in the 2016 election will be apparent in what happens to the likes of Meeks, once the evidence of additional wrongdoing inevitably emerges.