Video: Closing in on the Circle of Congress

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updated 1/6/2006 12:28:39 PM ET 2006-01-06T17:28:39

Suddenly the biggest big shot on K Street is the man nobody knows.  Suddenly the man who handed out campaign cash like Johnny Appleseed is watching those $1,000 gifts being sent back to charity like Christmastime fruit cake.  Even Hillary Clinton‘s got some hot Abramoff cash to shed. 

As disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff gets ready to dime out his pals on the Hill, the politicians who grabbed his campaign cash keep rushing to give it back, showing charity doesn‘t begin at home, but rather with hysteria. 

Bob Bennett, former federal prosecutor and former counsel to the Senate Ethics Committee, joined Chris Matthews to discuss how those that may be implicated by Abramoff might defend their actions.

To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST 'HARDBALL':  Bob, you were counsel to the Senate.  You‘ve been on both sides of these fights, going after corruption, sometimes defending members.  What is in and what is out in terms of bribery? 

BOB BENNETT, FMR. FEDERAL PROSECUTOR:  Well, technically, you can‘t accept anything, if you‘re going to give something in return. But the whole system is in a generic sense a gratuity.

MATTHEWS:  A guy comes to you and says, “I‘m going to give you a trip to—whatever—St. Andrews in Scotland.  You‘re going to spend three or four days, maybe you got to talk to somebody for 15 minutes somewhere.  It‘s all legal because it‘s part of some, you know, honorarium deal.”

And then a week later, he calls you up and says, “Did you have a nice trip?  Did you get a nice tan?  How‘s your wife like it?  Could you put this thing in the record for me?”

Is that bribery? 

BENNETT:  It depends.  No, it might be a gratuity.

And it would all depend on your intent and it would—you know, and if the government could show it was a quid pro quo, then it would be, in fact, a bribery. But it‘s very difficult for the government to find cases where it‘s bribery.  There‘s a lot of bribery that goes undetected, a lot of gratuities that go undetected. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Give me an example of an undetected bribery. 

BENNETT:  Well, the situation that you just mentioned where somebody in the back of their mind knows that if they get these benefits, they will be as helpful as they can be to the person giving them. 

And yet there may be the absence of specific proof of a quid pro quo, of “I‘m accepting this and doing this for you.” 

The problem, Chris is there are a lot of honorable people in Congress yet the institution is getting destroyed because they are addicted like addicts to perks and to the money that guys like Abramoff can raise for their fund raisers.  they—just like one of your favorite lines, the police captain is surprised of there being gambling in Rick‘s Place.  Now they‘re all running around, giving the money to charity or giving it back. 

They all know what Abramoff was up to, but they do it anyway. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  It‘s obvious—we‘ve known and we can talk it to death that the average member of Congress needs X many hundreds of thousands of dollars to get re-elected in even a safe district, OK, we know that. 

BENNETT:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  What‘s this about perks?  Is it that they live for some golf outing, that they‘ll throw away their honor for a golf outing to Scotland because that‘s what—because they don‘t have a lot of income on the side, because they‘re restricted in other ways?  Why today is it easier to buy a member of Congress for a good weekend, with a good weekend? 

BENNETT:  Well, I don‘t know.  Looks, let‘s be fair, most members of Congress wouldn‘t do that. 

But I think there are many who will, and I think there are many who will.  And I think you‘d see mass retirements in Congress if you passed legislation or rules which eliminated these perks. 

MATTHEWS:  Give me an example of a perk. 

BENNETT:  Well, what‘s described in the indictment—going off and playing on golf courses throughout Europe.  You owe somebody when they do something like that. 

Now, it‘s very difficult for the government sometimes to show that, that was done in return for something else, but you‘ve got to apply some common sense here.

And one of the big problems, Chris, is the ethics committees, which I dealt with, you know, as counsel to the Senate.

MATTHEWS:  They‘re pretty dormant, aren‘t they? 

BENNETT:  They‘re worse than dormant.  They‘re a laughing stock. 

They—no staffer would dare start an inquiry on his own for fear of offending an important member of Congress.  And the senators or the congressmen on these committees don‘t want to start something and dig deep about one of their colleagues whose votes they may need.

So it‘s a very bad system. 

And one of the things, Chris, that, you know, I reflect on because of another part of my life is they will drag corporate executives, as we‘ve seen the past year, before them and absolutely crucify them for perks and crucify them for breaches of fiduciary duties to shareholders, and yet without any sense of shame, go ahead and do the very same things, if not worse, bringing great discredit to their institutions, and they—many of them, many, not all, don‘t seem to think twice about it.

MATTHEWS:  When you sit down with a client, client A or B, or just think of a person generically, give me a composite, and you say, “Congressman, I have to tell you this.  I‘ve looked at the facts here.  It looks like you‘re exposed here.  They could charge that you on day one took a nice trip somewhere that was worth I know you may not know this. 

That trip, if you look at the first class ticket price and you look at the price of the hotel and what it cost for the greens fees, that was a $30,000 weekend, buddy.

And then on the Tuesday after that when the House was back in session, your legislative assistant drafted up legislation helpful to that person.  Are you telling them at that point that it looks like bribery? 

BENNETT:  Well, you know, in that hypothetical, I‘d tell them that the prosecutor is probably looking at that, and that we, at best, if we can honestly do it, sever the link between the perks and the action. 

MATTHEWS:  How do you do that?  How do you say they aren‘t connected?

BENNETT:  Well, you know ...

MATTHEWS:  Because the person watching right now on television believes they‘re connected.  A citizen out there who watches a Congressman do a big favor for a guy who just did a big favor for him says excuse me, they‘re connected. 

BENNETT:  Well, I agree with the public.  You know, that‘s the obvious perception but ...

MATTHEWS:  Well it‘s the truth, isn‘t it? 

BENNETT:  Yes, generally it‘s the truth.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

BENNETT:  But in putting on my hat as a defense lawyer, you know, you try to show that he voted that way or did the same kinds of things prior to that. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s get particular about someone who is not your client.  Robert Ney of Ohio, Republican member, put things in the record, the Congressional record, which is his right as a rMD+IN_rMDNM_representative of the people, in a way that advanced some business deal down if Florida involving casinos. 

It had nothing to do with his constituents.  It had something to do with something he was doing for Abramoff, OK?  Is that hard thing to prove, just to say why else on God‘s earth would this guy be saying things in the Congressional record about some casino deal if he wasn‘t doing it as a payoff to some lobbyist? 

BENNETT:  I think that that—because I‘m very reluctant without knowing all the facts to point the finger of guilt toward anybody, but as you articulated, the prosecution is going to be way ahead on that, precisely because of what you said earlier that the public looks at this stuff and says give me a break. 

MATTHEWS:  In life, hopefully, we have judgment by our peers, we have a jury of reasonable intelligence that knows what‘s going on.  A jury is presented with this and said Congressman A, whatever his name is—Ney—did this, obviously, as a pay back for a gift.  Is the jury then—it‘s up to the jury to see whether common sense tells you that this was a pay back or not? 

BENNETT:  Yes, but the defense ...

MATTHEWS:  No law will help us there.  You really have to figure it out. 

BENNETT:  It‘s all fact-based because the defense lawyer there is going to try to show presumably, you know, he would have done it anyway.  He‘s done this kind of thing before, that even though he played golf for three days in Europe, he also gave a speech to a bunch of businessmen, A, B, C and D, but these are all fact-based. 

MATTHEWS:  Is this just like King Kong is a bigger gorilla, that Abramoff is just a bigger example of this problem, that he‘s just generically the same? 

BENNETT:  Yes, I—well, there are ...

MATTHEWS:  He‘s just a big gorilla.

BENNETT:  There are very legitimate lobbyists.  I know many of them who do their work honorably. 

MATTHEWS:  Do they do favors for clients, for members of Congress with the idea of calling them up two days later and asking them to put a bill in? 

BENNETT:  Some do and many do not.  But I think members of Congress are naive to think that there is never any connection there and on one side of it—and they know this.  I mean, they‘ve been around a long time.  Some of these lobbyists, when they are going out hustling a client, you know, what they are articulating is not oh, gee.  They‘re not staying gee, the guy is not in my pocket. 

Some of them are out there saying, you know, hire me rather than lobby firm A, B, C and D ...

MATTHEWS:  I remember one lobbyist ...

BENNETT:  ... because I‘m so close to these guys, I just played golf with him for three days and he was at my house and he‘s in my box at the ballpark every weekend. 

MATTHEWS:  And he does take my calls. 

BENNETT:  And he takes my calls. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, thank you Bob Bennett.  You know your stuff.  Thank you very much, sir.

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