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Hightower: Congress Ethics Rules Undermined by Weasels

The Democratic majority in the House pushed through a widely ballyhooed set of reforms. Pelosi promised "the most honest, ethical and open Congress in history. How'd that work out?
 
 
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Scientifically speaking, the weasel is in the mustelidae family, but it is not the only burrowing rodent of its genus. There's also the mustela congressa lobbyista, which is that mischievous grouping of Washington lobbyists who habitually team up with certain congress-critters to burrow loopholes in our country's ethics laws.

You might recall the big ethics reform push of 2007. In January of that year, in response to public outrage over breathtakingly flagrant scandals involving Uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and several Republican members of Congress, the new Democratic majority in the U.S. House pushed through a widely ballyhooed set of reforms. Incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised that the changes would deliver "the most honest, ethical and open Congress in history.

How'd that work out?

Well, the new rules certainly have been an improvement over the anything-goes, corporate lobbyfest of the George W. Bush years. But even as the reforms were being written, mustela congressa lobbyista was busily burrowing its way into the new majority, inserting weaselly language that lets lobbyists continue slipping corporate money to lawmakers. Both ingenious and insidious, the loopholes allow business-as-usual collusion between influence-peddlers and those members of Congress who seem to be incurably allergic to ethics.

One of the major reforms, for example, was an outright ban on lobbyist-financed congressional junkets. Flying influential lawmakers to luxury resorts had been an Abramoff speciality, so reformers declared that these corrupt schmooze flights were to be an absolute no-no.

In Washington, however, even the clearest rules can go bonkers, perverting "no" into "yes." Take the glaring case of the appropriately named Don Bonker.
He's a powerhouse lobbyist with the firm of APCO Worldwide, whose clients include foreign corporations and governments that seek favors from our Congress.

One veteran lawmaker who can be very helpful to Bonker's clients is Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the right-wing Republican who is a key member of several committees and an eager servant of corporate interests.

In February of this year, Bonker picked up the $14,708 tab for Sensenbrenner and his wife to enjoy a lovely weeklong jaunt to Liechtenstein. The stated purpose of the trip was to hold meetings with European bankers and business honchos, but it was hardly all business -- the Sensenbrenners were treated to luxurious accommodations, time at a ski resort in the Alps and a neat tour of the prince of Liechtenstein's castle and vineyard.

But, wait -- Bonker-the-lobbyist is banned from financing such junkets, isn't he? Yes. But. A loophole in the 2007 reform rules allows nonprofit groups to pay for congressional trips. So, the Sensenbrenner's outing was covered by a nonprofit outfit called the International Management and Development Institute.

And who is president of the Institute? Why, none other than our man Bonker! And who funds the Institute? Such European firms as Deutsche Bank and Lufthansa Airlines, which have lobbying interests in Washington. In return for ponying up the bucks for the institute's junkets, top corporate executives get private tete-a-tetes with our lawmakers.

Through the nonprofit loophole, Bonker and foreign corporations can do indirectly what they are prohibited from doing directly. Clever, huh? So clever that "Air Bonker" has paid for five of Sensenbrenner's trips to France, Germany, Liechtenstein and Norway.

The high-flying congressman sees nothing amiss in this obvious circumvention of Congress' ethics rules. His office spokeswoman told the New York Times that the nonprofit dodge is merely a way for "a variety of sources" to "educate congressional leaders on a range of topics."

Hmmm. His "variety" of sources seems to be decidedly corporate. But, hey, Sensenbrenner would say that he's open to meeting with workaday folks like you, too. All you have to do to educate him on your "range of topics" is to create a nonprofit front group and fly him to a ski resort in Liechtenstein.

 
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