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Sex, money and lies: ‘Culture of Corruption’ boomerangs on Democrats as scandals blossom nationwide

The Democratic Party is battling scandals from New York to San Diego and from city hall to Capitol Hill, as the party finds itself on the defensive over embarrassing lapses ranging from sexual misconduct to multiple scandals ensnaring the Obama administration.

President Obama on Wednesday denounced what he called "phony scandals" and "an endless parade of distractions" blocking progress on the economy and other issues, but critics say the controversies underscore the missed opportunities for the president and his party to live up to pledges to clean up politics and break traditional patterns of money, influence and privilege in government.

The scandals have spanned the spectrum from a Democratic mayor in San Diego accused of being unable to keep his hands off his female aides to charges that the administration put the Internal Revenue Service on the trail of its political enemies.

One of Congress' most famous Democratic names, the scion of Jesse Jackson in Mr. Obama's home city of Chicago, was just sent to prison for converting campaign funds to personal use. In Detroit, the ex-mayor and the wife of longtime House Judiciary Committee member John Conyers Jr. have fallen to corruption scandals, while the son of former Democratic Party Chairman Ron Brown admitted last month to bribery charges as a city councilman in the nation's capital.

Longtime political analyst John Pitney Jr. said the Democrats' woes can be viewed as examples of history repeating itself and how the enticements of Washington's political culture can trip up the party in power.

"This culture of corruption has more to do with the culture of Washington," said Mr. Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "It's a matter of people being in power, and power plus money equals temptation."

It was eight years ago that Nancy Pelosi, then the leader of the House Democratic minority, made headlines with her attack on what she called the Republican Party's "culture of corruption," but now that moniker is coming back to haunt Democrats.

It's reminiscent of the outcry over the influence-peddling scandal that dogged the Republican Party in 2005, helping put the GOP on the defensive heading into the November 2006 midterm elections.

In 2005, the poster boy for power run amok was Jack Abramoff, the Republican lobbyist and influence-broker who pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and tax evasion. Mrs. Pelosi coined the term "Republican culture of corruption" and wielded it to attack the GOP on issues such as the Medicare prescription drug bill and the Iraq War.

The result: Democrats recaptured the House and Senate in the 2006 midterm elections, and two years later, Mr. Obama was elected president.

Summer scandals

With the 2014 midterm elections looming, however, it's now Democrats who are fighting off charges of corruption and misconduct as the party endures its own summer of scandal. Grabbing the headlines just this month are the sexual escapades of former Rep. Anthony D. Weiner of New York and San Diego Mayor Bob Filner.

Mr. Weiner, who resigned in 2011 after admitting to sending explicit photos of himself to several women, is under pressure to drop out of the race for the Democratic nomination for New York mayor after reports surfaced Tuesday of raunchy exchanges under the pseudonym "Carlos Danger."

Mr. Filner, who was a 10-term congressman, became mired in accusations of sexual harassment by former employees. On Tuesday, a former campaign consultant said he patted her on the bottom, and his former communications director recently filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against him.

Mrs. Pelosi has refused to comment on the Filner matter. She and Mr. Filner were co-founders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but last week she snapped at reporters who mentioned that, saying, "Don't identify him as my former colleague.

"What goes on in San Diego is up to the people of San Diego," Mrs. Pelosi said. "I'm not here to make any judgments — or even be fully versed on what happened."

Rep. Charles B. Rangel, the veteran New York Democrat who was censured by the full House for a series of tax and ethics violations in 2010, brushed aside Mr. Weiner's latest sexual scandal and its impact on the New York mayoral race.

"Knowing New York as I do — and I do know New York — this is not going to be a story by the time we get to September the 10th," Mr. Rangel told MSNBC in an interview Wednesday.

Mrs. Pelosi also has refused to demand that Mr. Weiner exit the mayor's race, saying that the decision should be left to the voters, according to a report by The Associated Press.

In 2006, however, Mrs. Pelosi called for a criminal investigation into former Rep. Mark Foley, Florida Republican, after he admitted to sending sexually explicit messages to an underage male congressional page.

In a statement, she said the investigation was warranted because members of Congress operate under a "special trust" with the pages. Even so, critics have accused Mrs. Pelosi of employing a double standard for Democratic sexual misbehavior.

Mixed record

While gleefully pointing up Republican sexual and influence-peddling failings before Mr. Obama came to power, Democrats have proved to be vulnerable to the same temptations under Mr. Obama. Good-government groups have tracked the rising number of former Obama aides who have found lucrative lobbying posts, and the number of top Democratic fundraisers rewarded with plum diplomatic posts.

Mr. Rangel's ethical problems effectively cost him the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee in 2010, just months before Democrats lost their majority in the chamber. Jesse Jackson Jr., an Illinois Democrat once considered — like Mr. Weiner — a rising force in his party's House caucus — pleaded guilty in February to wire and mail fraud after he resigned his seat in November.

Democratic one-party rule in city halls across the country also has led to overreach and scandal. Detroit's recent bankruptcy filing has trained another spotlight the corruption that plagued the administration of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, a Democrat who went to jail after being convicted of charges ranging from mail fraud to racketeering over his six-year term that ended in 2008.

In the District of Columbia, former D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown last month pleaded guilty to a public corruption charge for accepting tens of thousands of dollars in cash stuffed in duffel bags and coffee cups while in office. He pleaded guilty after the chairman of the D.C. Council, Kwame R. Brown, resigned and pleaded guilty to bank fraud in June 2012. Former council member Harry Thomas Jr. resigned from the D.C. Council and pleaded guilty in January 2012 to stealing $350,000 in public funds intended for youth sports programs.

Critics say the Democrats' sharp rhetoric when out of power has made it more difficult for figures such as Mrs. Pelosi to distance themselves from party members like Mr. Filner when they find themselves in trouble.

"Whether she's carrying a gavel or just carrying water, Pelosi has served as a loyal apologist and abettor of the Democratic Bad Boys Club," conservative columnist Michelle Malkin said in a Wednesday article. "What exactly will it take before voters finally turn this perv protector into a 'former colleague'?"

Although the sexual scandals may be embarrassing for Democrats, Republicans have endured cringe-worthy moments from their own former lawmakers, notably former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who was elected to Congress in May despite revelations about an extramarital affair.

"You're always going to have unscrupulous individuals elected to Congress who do unethical things. Republicans had Mark Sanford — Democrats have Anthony Weiner," said Republican political consultant Dick Wadhams.

What sets the Democrats' woes apart from those of the Republicans in 2006 is the gap between the party's rhetoric and the "summer of scandal" that has marred the start of Mr. Obama's second term. "Phony or not, the administration in recent months has had to deal with the IRS-tea party scandal; the questions surrounding the attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi; clashes with the press over aggressive leak investigations and the seizing of press phone records; and the fallout from the leaking of widespread government surveillance and intelligence-gathering programs.

"What we're seeing from the Obama administration is this raw abuse of power that we haven't seen since Watergate," Mr. Wadhams said. "I think that's what sets this apart."

That is not how Mrs. Pelosi views the uproar. During a May news conference on Capitol Hill, she rejected suggestions that Democrats, led by President Obama, are caught in their own culture of corruption.

"They make so much of these issues because this president is such a great president," said Mrs. Pelosi, adding that "some of them are legitimate issues, but they should not dominate everything."

Matthew Cella contributed to this report.

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