updated 10/24/2006 10:55:03 AM ET 2006-10-24T14:55:03

Public corruption cases brought by Justice Department prosecutors in Washington are on the rise, fueled in part by investigations targeting Republican lawmakers in Congress.

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With the Nov. 7 elections looming, prosecutors have moved forward on investigations of three GOP lawmakers in the last month alone. And several Justice Department officials privately hint that even more inquiries - involving Republicans and Democrats alike - may be under way.

"We can't look at what party someone is a member of in deciding whether or not to pursue an investigation," Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told reporters last week, calling government corruption prosecution one of his top priorities. "We have to follow the evidence wherever it leads."

Corruption cases on rise
Gonzales said there is "no special emphasis" on those cases as the elections approach. But the Justice Department generally tries to keep a low profile on government corruption cases in the months before an election to avoid unfairly influencing voters.

Justice Department data show a 60 percent increase over the last five years in government corruption convictions and settlements by its Washington-based public integrity unit. Prosecutions resulted in 84 convictions and settlements in 2005, the data show, compared to 52 in 2001.

The aggressive pursuit of Republican lawmakers by Bush administration prosecutors is a sign of the independent streak of career attorneys inside the public integrity unit, said Paul F. Rothstein, a legal and government ethics professor at Georgetown Law School.

"A lot of them are nonpolitical - they do have a taste for rooting out corruption and wrongdoing," Rothstein said. "There are some tensions coming from it. ... It's probably a very delicate and agonizing situation for the political appointees at the top" of the Justice Department.

Investigations by the public integrity unit at Justice headquarters in Washington make up only a sliver of public corruption cases prosecuted nationwide, most of which are handled by U.S. attorneys' offices. Last year, for example, federal prosecutors around the country charged 445 government officials, resulting in 390 convictions.

Small team, big spotlight
With only 29 attorneys, the public integrity unit in Washington is small when compared to the 450 government lawyers who prosecute criminal cases in the capital.

The unit's prosecutors generally lead or assist in high-profile corruption or national security cases, including inquiries involving members of Congress or the administration. According to its annual report, the unit had five open investigations - all of them unidentified - involving Congress at the end of last year.

The unit has seen an increase "in certain kinds of corruption that gets in newspapers," said one prosecutor who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the cases. "Any time you're investigating a member of Congress, it's going to get a lot of attention."

In the last month, the Justice Department has moved forward on inquiries involving two House Republicans: Reps. Mark Foley of Florida and Jim Kolbe of Arizona, both being investigated for possible improper or illegal sexual contact with teenage congressional pages. At the same time, prosecutors stepped up their investigation into whether Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican, steered $1 million in contracts to his daughter's lobbying firm.

All three men have denied the charges. Foley resigned shortly after the allegations surfaced, while Kolbe is retiring from the House.

Additionally, three other House Republicans and one GOP senator, as well as two House Democrats have been linked to ongoing Justice Department investigations over the last year. Two other House Republicans - Reps. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California and Bob Ney of Ohio - have pleaded guilty to corruption charges.

Sex, bribery, corruption and more
Experts say the spike in reported corruption cases is likely caused by one-party control of both the House and Senate. Investigations by the Republican-controlled House Ethics Committee, for example, ground to a near-standstill for more than a year because of partisan squabbles over staff and rules for its inquiries.

"It's far worse than what we've seen for decades on Capitol Hill," said Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen. "We've got sex, we've got bribery, we've got lobbyist corruption, earmarking, money laundering. ... The people who are in power become very comfortable with their positions, and they don't think that they can get in trouble for stepping over the line."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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