House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi's endorsement of Rep. John Murtha for majority leader, the No. 2 position in the Democratic leaderhsip, has roiled her caucus. "She will ensure that they [Mr. Murtha and his allies] win. This is hardball politics," Rep. Jim Moran, a top Murtha ally, told the Hill, a congressional newspaper. "We are entering an era where when the speaker instructs you what to do, you do it."
But several members are privately aghast that Mr. Murtha, a pork-barreling opponent of most House ethics reforms, could become the second most visible symbol of the new Democratic rule. "We are supposed to change business as usual, not put the fox in charge of the henhouse," one Democratic member told me. "It's not just the Abscam scandal of the 1980s that he barely dodged, he's a disaster waiting to happen because of his current behavior," another told me.
As for Abscam, a recent book by George Crile, a producer for CBS's "60 Minutes," provides damning evidence that Mr. Murtha escaped severe punishment for his role in the scandal only because then-Speaker Tip O'Neill arranged for the House Ethics Committee to drop the charges, over the objections of the committee's outside prosecutor. The prosecutor quickly resigned in protest.
Outside observers are equally aghast that Mr. Murtha could win tomorrow's election. Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institution scholar who is co-author of "The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track," told the Los Angeles Times that "John Murtha is not the right poster child" for a Democratic House that says it wants to sweep away corruption.
Melanie Sloan, the liberal head of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, was cheered on by Democrats six weeks ago when she helped reveal the Mark Foley scandal. Now she says that "Ms. Pelosi"s endorsement of Rep. Murtha, one of the most unethical members of Congress, show that she may have prioritized ethics reform merely to win votes with no real commitment to changing the culture of corruption."
Former members are also speaking out. Chris Bell, a former Democratic House member from Texas who was his party's unsuccessful nominee for governor this year, told the Washington Post that Mr. Murtha was instrumental in making Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia the top Democrat on the House Ethics Committee. Mr. Bell says Reps. Mollohan and Murtha both helped to slow ethics reform to a crawl for much of the last two years. This spring, Mr. Mollohan was forced to step down from his Ethics Committee position after The Wall Street Journal reported that he had underreported personal assets and steered earmarks to various West Virginia entities founded or controlled by his close political allies.
Mr. Murtha has also been front and center in the controversy over earmarks, the individual portions of pork members of Congress often secretly secure for their districts or favored constituents. Mr. Murtha is the ranking Democratic member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and for the past three years has been the House's top recipient of defense industry cash. Few in Washington are surprised that his lobbyist brother, Robert "Kit" Murtha, was until his retirement this summer an enormously successful "earmark specialist" for the Beltway firm KSA Consulting. In recent years, Kit Murtha brought in a mother lode of earmarks for at least 16 defense manufacturers with business before the Appropriations Committee.
Last year, the Los Angeles Times reported that "most of KSA's defense contractor clients hired the firm in hopes of securing funding from Rep. Murtha's subcommittee, according to lobbying records and interviews. And most retained the firm after Kit Murtha became a senior partner in 2002." Kit Murtha told the Times that he saw Rep. Murtha only infrequently, but said the congressman knew he was a KSA lobbyist. "I don't think that influences him," Kit said of his brother. "I certainly would hope not."
Mr. Murtha isn't talking much about all of these controversies, no doubt hoping that the clock will run out on questions about them when Democrats vote for majority leader tomorrow. For now his surrogates are brushing aside all inquiries. "There is no substance to it," says Rep. Linda Sanchez of California, a key Murtha ally. Ms. Pelosi's office will only say that Mr. Murtha "has addressed these issues." But he really hasn't, and Ms. Pelosi should know better.
Take the Abscam probe, in which Mr. Murtha was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the late-1970s FBI sting operation in which agents posed as Saudi sheiks and offered members of Congress bribes for help in securing asylum in the U.S. and getting money out of Saudi Arabia. In the end, a U.S. senator and six representatives accepted the cash and were convicted of bribery or lesser charges.
I spoke with Mr. Murtha's press secretary last Friday and emailed her Abscam-related questions. I followed up with a phone call yesterday. She never responded. Yesterday Mr. Murtha did issue a statement attempting to deflect questions: "I am disconcerted that some are making headlines by resorting to unfounded allegations that occurred 26 years ago. I thought we were above this type of swift-boating attack. This is not how we restore integrity and civility to the United States Congress"
Mr. Murtha was among those who were offered the Abscam bribe money. He declined it, but the late columnist Jack Anderson said the Pennsylvania congressman's conduct was "perhaps the saddest scene on the secret Abscam videotapes. He refused to take the money, but his reason was hardly noble."
The 54-minute Abscam tape shows Mr. Murtha functioning as a cynical backroom operator, telling the FBI undercover agents: "You know, you made an offer. It might be that I might change my mind someday." Later, he explained how that might happen: "I want to deal with you guys awhile before I make any transactions at all, period," he told the fake sheiks. "After we've done some business, well, then I might change my mind. I'm going to tell you this. If anybody can do it I am not BSing you fellows I can get it done my way. There's no question about it."
Mr. Murtha has said his only interest in the purported Saudi sheiks' money was that he hoped it would be invested in businesses in his district. But the full tape makes clear that Mr. Murtha was primarily interested in talking about such investments as a possible cover should he later decide to have the money transferred.
"And what I'm sayin' is, a few investments in my district, a few you know, is big to me, to this guy apparently is not too big, to a couple of banks which would get their attention. And investment in a business where you could legitimately say to me when I say legitimately, I'm talking about so these bastards up here can't say to me, well, why, in eight years from now, that's possible, we'd never hear a thing for eight years, but all at once, ah, some dumb bastard would go start talking eight years from now, ah, about the whole thing and say, '[expletive], ah, this happened,' then he, then he, in order to get immunity so he doesn't go to jail, he starts talking and fingering people and then the [expletive] all falls apart."
The undercover FBI agent in the meeting then spoke up and said "You give us the banks where you want the money deposited."
"All right" Mr. Murtha responded. "How much money we talking about?"
"Well, you tell me" replied the FBI agent.
A few moments later in the tape, Mr. Murtha continues his discussion of how "a business commitment" in his district would be structured: "A business commitment that makes it imperative for me to help him. Just, let me tell you something. I'm sure if and there's a lot of things I've done up here, with environmental regulations, with all kinds of waivers of laws and regulations. If it weren't for being in the district, people would say, 'Well that [expletive], I'm gonna tell you something this guy is, uh, you know, on the take.' Well once they say that, what happens? Then they start going around looking for the [expletive] money. So I want to avoid that by having some tie to the district. That's all. That's the secret to the whole thing."
It appears that what Mr. Murtha was referring to was a form of investment not for the sake of investment, but because "that's the secret" to how you can take a bribe and get away with it. Mr. Murtha was never indicted for his role in Abscam, even though he testified in federal court that he had called his "immigration guy" to determine what could be done to help the fake sheik with his immigration problems.
But in 1981, the House Ethics Committee became concerned that Mr. Murtha had, at a minimum, violated House rules that required he report any attempt at bribery, which he had not. A special prosecutor, Barry Prettyman, was appointed to oversee the committee's investigation. He soon expanded his probe beyond the six House members who were directly involved and began moving against Rep. Murtha. He was also rumored to be offering deals in exchange for testimony that would take the scandal inside the office of Speaker O'Neill.
That was the final straw from the irascible O'Neill. He determined to shut the investigation down, and the story of how he did it makes up a fascinating part of Mr. Crile's book, "Charlie Wilson's War" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003). Crile died earlier this year of cancer, but his story of how the larger-than-life Rep. Charlie Wilson of Texas single-handedly steered money from the defense subcommittee that Rep. Murtha chaired to the anti-Soviet mujahadeen in Afghanistan is so riveting that it is being made into a major motion picture produced by Mike Nichols and starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.
Crile reported that in early 1981 Speaker O'Neill called Rep. Wilson into his office and told him he wanted him to join the Ethics Committee right away. The Texas congressman had been pestering him for years to get a lifetime seat on the board the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. "It's the best perk in town," Mr. Wilson told Crile. "It means that I get the box right next to the president's box for the ballet when I want it. I get to go to all the cast parties, meet all the movie stars, and I get an extra invitation to the White House every season."
O'Neill made it clear he would appoint Mr. Wilson to the board he coveted, but that he would have to joni the Ethics Committee to take care of the Murtha matter. "It's a package deal, Chally," O'Neill is said to have told Mr. Wilson.
"The word on Charlie was that he didn't talk," ex-Rep. Tony Coelho, who became majority whip after O'Neill's retirement, told Crile. "From time to time the speaker needed to mount irregular operations, and Wilson was one of those irregulars Tip could count on." Mr. Wilson didn't need any prodding for his task: "He was a happy warrior as he raced to the rescue of his imperiled friend John Murtha," Crile wrote.
Crile reported that prior to Mr. Wilson's arrival on the Ethics Committee, it had largely given Mr. Prettyman, the special counsel, a free hand in his probe. That quickly changed: "Before Prettyman could fully deploy his investigators to move on the Murtha case, he was informed that the committee had concluded there was no justification for an investigation." The Ethics Committee chairman, Rep. Louis Stokes of Ohio, suddenly declared "This matter is closed."
Mr. Prettyman, who had already likened the Ethics Committee to "a misdemeanor court faced with a multiple murder," was furious at the dramatic change of course. He abruptly resigned his post the same afternoon the committee voted to clear Mr. Murtha. While Mr. Prettyman continues to refuse to discuss the case, he told Roll Call newspaper in 1990 that it would be "a logical conclusion" that he resigned over the committee's exoneration of Mr. Murtha. Crile's book notes that "a teary Murtha had confided to a colleague that Wilson's effort had saved his life." Crile concludes that the Murtha "rescue operation" had far-reaching consequences. "For O'Neill the intervention ended the threat to his hold on the House and unleashed him to become Ronald Reagan's liberal tormentor."
Two decades later, In 2002, ex-Rep. Don Bailey, a Democrat who had sat on the Ethics Committee (and who lost to Mr. Murtha in a Democratic primary in 1982, after decennial redistricting put them in the same district) released a public letter to Mr. Murtha: "I was, to be honest, critical about how you misled me about Abscam where you convinced me you had voluntarily told federal agents about the offer of money to you." Mr. Bailey continued: "I learned later, after I had successfully defeated the ethics charges against you, that you had merely manipulated the system to cooperate with federal agents to avoid prosecution."
For his part, Mr. Wilson was quite pleased by his role in burying the Murtha probe. Crile reported that Mr. Wilson told him he "laughed off the incident as if it had been an entertainment." Mr. Wilson said, "It was the best deal I ever made. I only had to be on Ethics for a year, and I get to stay on the Kennedy Center for life."
When I spoke with Crile last year, he confirmed that he stood by his account of the spiking of the Murtha ethics probe. Last night Mr. Wilson assured me that the Crile book was "completely accurate." (The only complaint about any facts in it, he said, had come from the heirs to a Texas oilman who was briefly mentioned in it.) Mr. Wilson told me he and George Crile were 50-50 partners in the movie deal.
When I asked Mr. Wilson about the portions of the book that dealt with his efforts to squelch the Ethics Committee probe of Mr. Murtha, he tersely said, "I have no comment." He reiterated that Mr. Murtha remains his good friend they appeared together at a Pennsylvania fund-raising event for Democratic candidates and said that Mr. Murtha has been unfairly attacked for his record in promoting earmarks.
In contrast to Sen. John McCain, whose experience in the 1990 Keating Five scandal turned him into a good-government reformer, Mr. Murtha's brush with infamy stirred in him a conviction that members of Congress deserve more protection from ethics probes. In 1997 Mr. Murtha joined with Rep. Billy Tauzin, a Louisiana Republican, in blocking outside groups and private citizens from filing complaints directly with the House Ethics Committee.
Mr. Murtha also pushed for a law that would require the Justice Department to reimburse the legal bills of any member of Congress it investigated if it was shown the probe was not "substantially justified" a privilege no other American enjoyed. Only after Henry Hyde, then chairman of the Judiciary Committee, objected was the bill amended to allow reimbursement for anyone member of Congress or not acquitted in a "bad faith" prosecution.
Gary Ruskin, director of the liberal Congressional Accountability Project, told Roll Call that "when it comes to institutional policing of corruption in Congress, John Murtha is a one-man wrecking crew." Now with the support of Ms. Pelosi, that "wrecking crew" stands just one ballot away from becoming House majority leader. Should he win the sealed-ballot election of his peers tomorrow, Democrats may have a hard time explaining just what has changed regarding the Congress's "culture of corruption."