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Republicans fear fallout from new ethics probes

A half dozen federal investigations into the activities of Republican lawmakers are raising new worries for GOP leaders who hope to regain the House majority they lost last fall.
GOP Ethics
House members under investigation by federal authorities include: Top row, from left are, Rep. Gary Miller, R-Calif.; Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa.; Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz.; and Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif. Bottom row, from left are, Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif.; Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif.; Rep. William Jefferson, D-La.; and Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A half dozen federal investigations into the activities of Republican lawmakers are raising new worries for GOP leaders who hope to regain the House majority they lost last fall.

In recent weeks, two veteran Republicans surrendered prominent committee seats after FBI agents raided the offices of family businesses. Others have long-running investigations hanging over them. Some conservative activists are criticizing the party's handling of the matters.

Democrats say at least six GOP House members are under some degree of Justice Department scrutiny, although Republicans question whether all the inquiries are active.

Neither side immune
In pure numbers, Republicans are approaching the magnitude of their problem at this stage of the 2006 election cycle. Eventually, nine House Republicans faced FBI investigations. Four stepped down, and two - Reps. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California and Bob Ney of Ohio - are in prison. Of the five who sought re-election, three lost and the other two remain under ethical clouds.

Republicans call attention to the fact that Democrats have their own ethical problems.

Two House Democrats are the focus of federal investigations. Rep. William J. Jefferson, D-La., has been under scrutiny in a bribery investigation since at least 2005, when FBI agents found $90,000 in his home freezer. The Justice Department also is investigating whether Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., benefited from steering federal funds to nonprofit groups he helped start. Both Jefferson and Mollohan easily won re-election last year.

'Question of accountability'
Republicans say Democrats will have trouble duplicating the success of last year's "culture of corruption" campaign theme because the current allegations against GOP members are far less severe. There is no evidence of the type of overt corruption that felled Cunningham and Ney, they say, and no one under scrutiny has the national name recognition that former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, had in 2005 and 2006.

At a minimum, however, the growing list of GOP incumbents under scrutiny is a distraction and nuisance for a party already struggling with an unpopular president and his handling of an unpopular war.

"It's a question of accountability," said Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has numerous researchers digging into GOP members' records.

Ethics cases elsewhere aren't helping Republicans. Democrats are using subpoenas to dig into the administration's firing of several federal prosecutors. They're also monitoring news reports from Alaska saying that business associates, friends and a son of veteran GOP Sen. Ted Stevens are under investigation in a long-running corruption probe.

Recent Republican concerns
The situation troubles some conservative activists. Especially under criticism is the House GOP leaders' decision to replace one embattled member of the coveted Appropriations Committee with another.

Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., left the committee in April after FBI agents raided his Washington-area home. His wife, Julie, ran a business from the home in which she received commissions as a paid fundraiser for her husband's campaigns and her clients included now-jailed GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Doolittle's committee seat went to Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif. The FBI retrieved copies of Calvert's annual financial disclosure statements following reports last year that Calvert steered millions of federal dollars to projects near his private real estate developments.

Calvert says the FBI has not contacted him and he has no reason to believe he is a target. But that hasn't stopped the widely read conservative blog from repeatedly denouncing Calvert's appointment to the Appropriations Committee.

Joining the attack recently was Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. He said Calvert "would seem to fit in more with the party" that keeps Jefferson and Mollohan in office "than with a party that has made great strides in trying to clean up its image."

Aside from Doolittle, Republican operatives are most concerned about Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., who gave up his House intelligence committee seat last month after FBI agents raided his wife's insurance business.

Renzi paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes while settling charges that his businesses improperly paid for his first congressional campaign. He also faces an inquiry into whether he used his House seat to help a former business partner make land swaps.

Other Republican House members recently under federal scrutiny include:

  • Jerry Lewis of California: Prosecutors in Los Angeles are examining how millions of dollars in federal contracts were steered to a company whose founders were big contributors to Lewis' campaigns while he chaired the House Appropriations Committee.
  • Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania: Murphy declined comment on published reports that authorities are investigating whether his legislative aides performed campaign work while on government time.
  • Gary Miller of California: Miller says he has no reason to believe he is under investigation, but Democrats have run Web-based attack ads citing published reports that federal agents have looked into some land deals involving the lawmaker.

Jessica Boulanger, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Democratic attacks on the ethics front will have little effect. Democrats, she said, "are proving incapable of governing, so it's no wonder they're dusting off their '06 playbook in an effort to hide their failed leadership."