Sunday, February 8, 2009

When in the last election Democrats spoke of a “culture of corruption” in Washington, few realized they were making a campaign promise.

The Obama administration is only a few weeks old, but already more senior officials in it have suffered from ethical taint than in any previous administration.

The late night comics have noticed. “There was a huge scientific breakthrough today,” said Jay Leno. “Researchers say they are very close to finding someone from Obama’s Cabinet who’s actually paid their taxes.”

Mr. Leno was referring to former Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle, whose nomination for secretary of health and human services was withdrawn after it was disclosed he didn’t pay $101,000 in taxes owed for a car and driver, or pay taxes on $83,000 of consulting income in 2007, and Timothy Geithner, who was confirmed as treasury secretary despite his failure to pay his payroll taxes for four years.

Hours before Mr. Daschle withdrew his nomination Tuesday, Nancy Killefer withdrew hers as chief compliance officer when it was revealed the District of Columbia had placed a lien on her Wesley Heights mansion for failure to pay unemployment compensation tax for a household employee.

Rep. Hilda Solis, California Democrat, the nominee for labor secretary, apparently violated House rules by failing to disclose she was an officer of a group lobbying Congress.

Eric Holder was confirmed as attorney general despite having circumvented Justice Department rules to obtain a pardon for fugitive financier Marc Rich when he was deputy attorney general during the waning days of the Clinton administration. In a 2002 report, the House Government Operations Committee described Mr. Holder’s behavior in the Rich affair as “unconscionable.”

On Jan. 6, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson withdrew as the nominee for commerce secretary when it was disclosed the FBI was investigating him in connection with a “pay to play” scandal.

Gov. Richardson was, many think, President Obama‘s second choice. Mr. Obama was thought to have wanted to name Penny Pritzker, his campaign finance chairman, to the Commerce post, but feared nominating her might bring unwelcome scrutiny to her role in the subprime mortgage crisis. (Ms. Pritzker pioneered the nefarious instruments at her now defunct Superior bank in suburban Chicago.)

Hoping the third time would be the charm, President Obama on Monday chose Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire for the Commerce Department. So on Wednesday we learn Mr. Gregg’s former legislative director was tangentially involved in the Jack Abramoff scandal.

The most recent candidate in the malleable ethics sweepstakes is Ron Sims, chosen Monday to be the deputy secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. As King County (Seattle) executive, Mr. Sims was fined $124,000 for “blatant” violations of Washington state’s public records act for failure to release documents with regard to financing of the stadium where the Seattle Seahawks play. Last month the state supreme court said the fine should be increased.

Congress has turned an indulgent eye to these ethical lapses because there are many in Congress who are guilty of the same, or worse. Charles Rangel, New York Democrat, remains chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee despite his failure to pay taxes on $75,000 in rental income, and - according to a report issued Wednesday - repeatedly failing to comply with congressional financial disclosure rules. Sen. Chris Dodd (Democrat, Countrywide Mortgage) remains as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee despite having received a sweetheart loan from one of the worst of the subprime mortgage villains.

The Charlotte Observer endorsed Barack Obama for president, but is having second thoughts:

“Two weeks into the Obama presidency, we like his campaign better than his administration,” the Observer said Wednesday. “While some of his appointments are outstanding, others were either badly botched or reflect a half-hearted commitment to the change principle central to his ballot box success.”

Jack Kelly, a syndicated columnist, is a former Marine and Green Beret and a former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. He is national security writer for the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Post-Gazette.

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