The Top Ten Ethics Scandals of 2008

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Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has released its year-end list of the “top” 10 ethics scandals of 2008. Why isn’t the recent criminal complaint against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on the list? Well, for one, it’s not a Washington-centered problem. But Melanie Sloan, CREW’s executive director, adds that while the Blagojevich case may be the flavor of the week right now, she thinks the scandals on her administration’s list will have more of an impact in the long run. Here they are:

1. “Unchecked Congressional Ethics”: CREW wants Congress to have a high-powered ethics office with subpoena power. MoJo Blog covered the vote on this earlier this year; we looked at this issue last year, too.

2. “No Guarantee that Bush Administration Records will be Properly Archived”: We’ve been keeping you up to date on the ongoing missing White House emails problem.

3. “Speech or Debate Clause”: Lots of politicians who are charged with crimes seek to have their indictments dismissed under the “Speech and Debate” clause of the Constitution, which they claim protects anything in their congressional office from being used against them in court on the grounds that its “legislative material.” Sloan says that this may be the biggest of the ten scandals her organization highlighted. If Blagocevich had been a member of congress, Sloan says, he would have been protected from much of US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation. Law enforcement would not have been able to tap his office phone or include anything he did in the course of his legislative work as part of an indictment, Sloan says. And both Democrats and Republicans are protecting this hard-line interpretation of the speech and debate clause. “This is a bipartisan issue of protecting members accused of corruption from investigation and prosecution,” Sloan says. Mother Jones covered this problem as early as 2006, with the raid on the offices of now ex-Louisiana Democratic Rep. William Jefferson.

4. “The Pay-to-Play Congress”: You’ve heard about this from John McCain and Barack Obama, who both talked about the power of earmarks to corrupt the legislative process. Every year, CREW notes the most egregious instances of earmark abuse, when campaign donors get earmarks from the politicians who they support. We wrote about corruption expert Lawrence Lessig’s Change Congress effort and will have more with Lessig next week.

5. “Enriching Family with Campaign Cash”: CREW has released two reports on this problem, “Family Affair – House” and “Family Affair – Senate.” We noted the most recent offender, Charlie Rangel.

6. “Controversial Presidential Pardons”: The president’s pardon power is essentially unlimited, and that has CREW worried about what President Bush will do with it before he leaves office. Elizabeth Gettelman wrote about the hypocrisy of commuting Scooter Libby’s sentence but ignoring Marion Jones. And Bruce Falconer asked if pardoning “all those involved in the application of what [the Bush] administration called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques'” would be wise.

7. “VA Officials Intentionally Misdiagnosing PTSD”: CREW broke a story earlier this year about VA officials being pressed to misdiagnose Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a cost-cutting measure. In September, Bruce Falconer wrote a story for the print magazine about whether the Bush administration had “maxed out the military.”

8. “Bailout Oversight”: The government spent $700 billion and all you got was a few bank failures. We’ve covered the hearings and brought you the latest. Most recently, we looked at the Fannie/Freddie bailout and asked about Treasury’s blank check.

9. “Political Calculations Dictate Border Fence Placement”: Ray L. Hunt has land that falls on both sides of the border fence, but CREW says he’s getting special treatment because he’s a Bush “pioneer.” That kind of suction wouldn’t be unusual for Hunt: in July, Laura Rozen wrote about how Hunt seems to have almost unlimited access to the White House (and, in this case, to Kurdish oil.)

10. “A Politicized Bush Justice Department”: To prevent the abuse of the courts for political ends, the DOJ was traditionally the least-politicized of all the executive branch departments. That all changed when Bush took office. In 2007, Daniel Schulman was among the first to document how the conservative Federalist society may have influenced personnel decisions at the DOJ. Stephanie Mencimer covered another interesting aspect of this story in May when she examined the Justice Department’s reluctance to release documents from the 2002 GOP phone-jamming in New Hampshire. And Stephanie was also there for the most unsurprising moment of the DOJ politicization saga: Karl Rove’s failure to show up for a hearing on the subject in July.

It seems unlikely that the first year of the Obama administration will match up to the last year of the Bush administration in terms of ethics-scandal-potential. But we’ll be here, keeping an eye on everyone, Barack Obama included. Stick with us.

(You can find a PDF version of CREW’s full report on the “top ten” scandals here)

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