It has been more than 40 years since the so-called “Bobby Baker” scandal washed over the Capitol like a tsunami threatening to engulf any number of lawmakers. Those threatened included the then-vice president of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, who ultimately avoided its devastation through the good offices of his mentor, House Speaker Sam Rayburn, and a Democratic majority that tried to whitewash the matter as much as possible.
The scandal, named after the secretary to the Senate Democratic majority, shortened the career of several prominent politicians, sent Baker to jail, disrupted the corrupt practices of a number of lobbyists, and prompted creation of committees in both houses of Congress to oversee and examine members’ ethics. It was also the first in two decades of scandals that included Watergate and has been called the age of the investigative reporter.
Ironically, its significance was not even recognized by fellow journalists who denied the two reporters most responsible for uncovering the corruption, the old Washington Star’s Paul Hope and the late John Barron, the Pulitzer Prize they richly deserved and expected to receive.
The governing board of the prizes decided at the last minute to award the national reporting award that year to a prominent New York Times columnist, who was a former winner, for what in comparison was routine work. So what’s new?
While the effect of the Baker scandal and those that followed — including the Ethics Committee’s first case, an inquiry into the financial activities of Sen. Thomas Dodd of Connecticut (in retrospect an unfair journalistic attack on an honest but careless man) — were considerable, they pale compared with the likes of Watergate and Iran Contra and the much earlier Teapot Dome. But if you think any of those was the Mount Everest of government malfeasance, at least from a financial standpoint, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Churning down Constitution Avenue toward Capitol Hill is a hurricane of potential political anguish the size of Katrina. It has been swirling around down the street at the Justice Department for sometime. With a major development just last week, it seems on the move to destroy any number of careers.
This scandal involves extraordinarily well-connected super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose activities already have resulted in an indictment in Florida and have been under close scrutiny in this town for at least a year and a half.
Michael Scanlon, Mr. Abramoff’s partner and a former spokesman for besmirched former House GOP leader Tom DeLay, pleaded guilty last week to having plotted with Mr. Abramoff to bribe government officials and defraud Indian tribes with casinos out millions of dollars in fees. Something like $80 million has been mentioned. The betting is Scanlon cut a deal to be the star witness against Mr. Abramoff. Scanlon agreed to repay millions.
While a major Republican player (after all, they are in power) who salted the congressional landscape with golf outings and campaign donations and no one knows quite what else, Mr. Abramoff and his partners weren’t adverse to rewarding Democrats for supporting their efforts.
But the lawmakers most targeted for favors seem to be Rep. Robert Ney, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Administration Committee, who appears to have often eaten free at Mr. Abramoff’s now closed Capitol Hill restaurant, and Mr. DeLay, chief celebrity at a bigtime Abramoff-sponsored golf outing in Scotland. The Associated Press has identified more than 30 other lawmakers as having pushed for an Aramboff cause. All deny any exchange of favors.
The extent of Mr. Abramoff’s activities is apparently still being determined. But his alleged improprieties make those around Baker, who even shook down Senate pages, look like penny ante stuff, or, in Watergate parlance, a third-rate burglary.
The key amount that brought down Baker was something like a $100,000 donation in cash from a lobbying group. Native Americans lost millions in this Abramoff deal, not an unusual consequence for our indigenous citizens at the hands of the government and those who influence it. That alone makes the entire mess more egregious than most scandals.
It is easy to predict that when all is said and done here, which may take years, the effect will be enormous. It clearly is shaping up as the first great scandal of the 21st century. Sadly, no one ever seems to learn from the mistakes of the past, particularly in Congress where the cost of winning elections is far too high and the opportunities for personal wealth often seem too great to resist.
Is it any wonder that cynicism has become a lifelong condition for those of us who came to Washington in the Baker era?
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.