Andy Kroll

Andy Kroll

Senior Reporter

Andy Kroll is Mother Jones' Dark Money reporter. He is based in the DC bureau. His work has also appeared at the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, Men's Journal, the American Prospect, and, where he's an associate editor. Email him at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. He tweets at @AndyKroll.

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Congress' Mystery Finance Bill Probe

| Thu Jul. 15, 2010 10:37 AM EDT

[Update: Mother Jones reached out to Julie Domenick, the lobbyist mentioned in the New York Times' story today, who says the circumstances surrounding the event for Rep. Joe Crowley were much different from how the Times reported them. Her response is below.]

Eight members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans both, are under investigation for—get this—taking special interest money at the same time they write and pass major legislation. Which is to say, business as usual. The investigation, which the New York Times reports on today, is something of a head-scratcher.

On the one hand, there's no denying the huge conflict of interest when lawmakers take money from, say, auto dealers while writing a bill that may or may not impose new oversight on those same dealers. (As you might've heard, the dealers got what they wanted.) But, sad to say, that's how Washington operates. The only way House or Senate members can really get in trouble is if there's a clear quid pro quo. But here's the catch: proving that campaign funds (or some type of perk) directly resulted in some (in)action by a lawmaker is very hard to prove. 

Nonetheless, the Office of Congressional Ethics is investigating Democratic and Republican congressmen for receiving big-time financial sector money and attending industry-tied fund-raisers within 10 days of the House's December 11, 2009, passage of its version of financial reform. According to the Times' story, the eight members under investigation collectively hauled in $140,000, and seven of them held fundraisers during that period, too:

For example, on Dec. 10, one of the lawmakers under investigation, Representative Joseph Crowley, a New York Democrat who sits on the Ways and Means Committee, left the Capitol during the House debate to attend a fund-raising event for him hosted by a lobbyist at her nearby Capitol Hill town house that featured financial firms, along with other donors. After collecting thousands of dollars in checks, Mr. Crowley returned to the floor of the House just in time to vote against a series of amendments that would have imposed tougher restrictions on Wall Street.

That same day, Representative Tom Price, a Georgia Republican on the Financial Services Committee, scheduled what he called a “Financial Services Luncheon” at the Capitol Hill Club, as part of a fund-raising push that netted him nearly $23,000 in contributions from the industry in a two-month period around the vote.

In an area where the rules are murky, the investigators are taking an aggressive stance on what constitutes unethical conduct. The independent ethics office, led by a former federal prosecutor, has clashed repeatedly with lawmakers on the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, who have accused it of over-reaching. Given this history, observers believe it is unlikely that the committee will admonish any members, even if the investigators recommend action.

From all the press reports I've read, I'd have to agree. It's deeply troubling to see members of Congress ducking out of floor debates to attend fundraisers with lobbyists representing the very industry they're talking about regulating—but is there clear quid pro quo there? Is there hard proof that Crowley's fundraiser on December 10 resulted in his votes against new amendments that would've cracked down on Wall Street? Not on the face of it. (In a statement, a Crowley spokesman told the Times, "Congressman Crowley has always complied with the letter and spirit of all rules regarding fund-raising and standards of conduct.")

The Times article also mentions that ethics investigators have requested "all files, correspondence, e-mails, receipts, notes, and any other documents" on the fundraiser for Rep. Crowley from the lobbyist who hosted the event, Julie Domenick. If there's a smoking gun to be found, that's likely where investigators will find it. And maybe investigators do have an ace up their sleeve here, a damning email or letter that links money to votes that clinches the investigation.*

If they don't, though, it's hard to see how this probe will result in anything other than some embarrassing press clippings for the eight lawmakers under investigation.

* Mother Jones spoke with Domenick today, who said the Times' depiction of the event for Crowley was inaccurate and unfair. According to Domenick, whose clarifications were also reported today by the Center for Public Integrity, the Crowley fundraiser was scheduled for December 10 more than a month beforehand, in a set of emails in early November. As such, Domenick says, it was impossible for the event to be connected to the House's financial reform vote because no one knew a month in advance when the vote would occur, and she told CPI the event "had nothing to do with what was going on the House floor."

Here are the lawmakers in potential hot water:

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.)

Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY)

Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.)

Rep. Christopher Lee (R-Calif.)

Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-ND)

Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC)

Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.)

Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.)

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Chamber v. Obama: Jobs Throwdown

| Wed Jul. 14, 2010 9:42 AM EDT

On Wednesday the US Chamber of Commerce hosts its much-anticipated jobs summit here in Washington, dubbed "Let's Talk Jobs," and to keep things feisty, the Chamber's president previewed the event by ripping the Obama administration for stifling job creation and generally being anti-business. In an open letter to the White House set for release today, Chamber president and CEO Tom Donohue says the administration has "created an economic environment that is fundamentally incompatible with our desire to expand investment and create jobs." The letter, excerpted by Politico, goes on to say, "Uncertainty is the enemy of growth, investment, and job creation. Through their legislative and regulatory proposals—some passed, some pending, and others simply talked about—Congress and the administration have created an economic environment that is fundamentally incompatible with our desire to expand investment and create jobs."

At the same time, Stan Anderson, who leads the Chamber's Campaign for Free Enterprise, told the Wall Street Journal that "We are not going to engage in a debate over whether the White House is pro- or anti-business. We really want to talk about policy." From the looks of it, however, there's no debate needed—huge swaths of the business community, fairly or not, already believe the White House is anti-business.

The administration, predictably, responded today by releasing a report laying out the number of jobs saved or created through the White House's efforts to jump-start the economy, like the hundreds of billions of dollars in stimulus funds. By the end of June, the report says, the stimulus had boosted employment by 2.5 million to 3.6 million jobs and raised the nation's GDP by about 3 percent. Christina Romer, one of the president's top economic advisers, will also hold a conference call at noon hammering away at the White House's job creation efforts and pushing back against the Chamber and Donohue.

The Chamber's event today certainly won't sing the praises of the stimulus. Its roster of speakers includes fiscal conservatives like Sen. Judd Gregg (R-RI), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), and Erskine Bowles, who co-chairs Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. The solutions tossed out will probably be revolve in some way around tax cuts—in other words, liberal economist Paul Krugman's worst nightmare. But at a time when there's a 9.5 percent unemployment rate, there are nearly six jobless workers for every one available job, and nearly half of all unemployed have been out of work for six months or more, any discussion of how to get the American job machine chugging again is worth having.

Is Your Senator Fighting Jobless Benefits?

| Tue Jul. 13, 2010 1:27 PM EDT

By week's end, 2.5 million out of work Americans will lose their unemployment benefits. Thanks in large part to the filibustering of the Republican caucus, a bill to extend those benefits couldn't make it out of the Senate. Led by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Republicans repeatedly voted against extending jobless benefits, saying they wouldn't support the measure because it adds to the deficit. That's true: New support for the unemployed is deemed "emergency" funding, and that cost is indeed tacked onto the deficit. Another fact: This practice of categorizing jobless benefits as "emergency" funds is longstanding in Congress, something both Democrats and Republicans have done for decades. As Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), a leading voice unemployment support, recently put it, "15 million people unemployed is an emergency. [Republicans' stance] is the most cynical, political position I have ever seen."

It's a position a vast majority of Americans don't agree with, either. A Washington Post poll today reported that 62 percent of Americans think Congress should "approve another extension of unemployment benefits." Seventy percent of respondents in a June Hart Research poll (pdf) say it's too early to cut back on "benefits and health coverage for workers who lost their jobs." And a December 2009 CNN poll found that 74 percent of people support creating more jobs even if it increases the deficit.

Is Congress' Golf Habit Out of Bounds?

| Mon Jul. 12, 2010 3:35 PM EDT

Each year, two familiar haunts on Washington political circuit—the Capitol Hill Club (GOP) and the National Democratic Club—host popular golf outings where members of Congress, their staffers, and other paying participants hit the links to raise money for the two clubs. The more big-name lawmakers who show up, enjoying for free a round of golf that usually costs $3,000 to $8,000, the better. But by letting lawmakers swing away and dine for free, are the clubs breaking House ethics rules?

That's what one government transparency group, the Sunlight Foundation, is alleging. According to ethics rules, members of Congress and their aides aren't allowed to play in golf fundraisers like the Capitol Hill Club's and the NDC's. (They are, however, cleared to play charity fundraisers, so long as they're not for social and recreation clubs.) The two clubs skirt these rules by obtaining ethics waivers for lawmakers and their staffers, according to Sunlight, even though the House ethics handbook warns against giving out individual waivers.

Here's more from Sunlight on the funny business with lawmakers attending golf tournaments that should be out of bounds for members of Congress:

National Democratic Club operations manager Dana Ehlman declined to say how many members would play in the 32nd Annual Tip O’Neill Golf Tournament at in Potomac Falls, Va.

"Two or three" members and the same number of staffers are expected to attend the Capitol Hill Club outing in Alexandria, fewer than usual, because of the event’s timing, right after the Independence Day recess, according to Lawson...

All year, members pay the clubs to host fundraisers for their campaigns and leadership PACs. This year there are over 500 invitations to Capitol Hill Club fundraisers and over 70 to the NDC and its next door townhouse in Party Time’s database of invitations.

The NDC has members, staffers, and lobbyists on its board of directors, according to its website. As of its 2008 tax return, the same was true for the Capitol Hill Club.

The exemption letter for the NDC is written specifically for the golf tournament, which is the only fundraiser by the club all year, Ehlman said. The Capitol Hill Club puts on three to six fundraisers per year and its exemption allows all of these events, Lawson said.

Rick Scott's Abortion Distortion

| Mon Jul. 12, 2010 1:33 PM EDT

Rick Scott, the former health care CEO running as a Republican in the Florida governor's race, likes to tout his pro-life cred by pointing to a multimillion-dollar million lawsuit his company lost in 2003. Scott, the St. Petersburg Times reports, claims his former employer, Columbia/HCO, lost the suit because his hospital saved the life of a child, born prematurely with severe complications, even though the parents didn't want that. As Scott tells it, the story comes across as the ultimate pro-life narrative, an unwavering opposition to abortion even in the face of grave medical complications.

Except Scott's version is far from the whole story. According to the Times, when the mother of the child, Karla Miller, was rushed to hospital, the complications surrounding her 23-week-old were many. The odds the child would live anything resembling a normal life were slim, if the child survived at all. Facing this grave outlook, the Millers chose to terminate the pregnancy. But the hospital ultimately made that choice for them, and began trying to save the fetus' life. In the end, the child, named Sidney, survived—but only after a brain surgery and other drastic medical interventions that led to serious and life-altering complications, both for Sidney and her parents.

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