Once upon a time — about five years ago — conservative pundits often talked about “scandal fatigue.” Remember scandal fatigue? It was an affliction supposedly either turning voters against Democrats or, alternatively, a weariness in the body politic preventing Republicans from pursuing even more grievances against Bill Clinton. By any objective measure, however, after four years of George W. Bush’s presidency, the entire nation should be suffering from utter scandal exhaustion.
Consider the raw materials of scandal that this administration has produced: False claims about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. Torture in Abu Ghraib. The virtually treasonous exposure of a CIA agent by White House officials. And those are just the best-known examples.
After all, how many citizens can name all the ongoing investigations of Halliburton, Vice President Dick Cheney’s old firm? Who remembers that the administration illicitly diverted $700 million from Afghanistan to Iraq? Or that, on Capitol Hill, Senate Republicans stole strategy memos from Democrats, while a House Republican said he was offered a bribe during a crucial vote? Even a conscientious citizen cannot be expected to keep score, so Salon has compiled a list.
If the next four years of Bush and the GOP running the federal government are anything like the previous four, however, potential scandals will lead to few political consequences for the Republicans. Bush opponents will likely be disappointed if they are waiting for a renewal of the supposed “second-term scandal jinx” dogging Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Clinton.
After all, Washington Republicans are insulated by a rabidly partisan Congress with no interest in investigating the executive branch (and little taste for disciplining itself). By contrast, presidents Nixon, Reagan and Clinton each faced an adversarial Congress. As the late Senate Watergate Committee counsel Sam Dash noted in 2003 about congressional oversight: “Although it worked then, it doesn’t mean it would work now.”
Moreover, Congress allowed the independent-counsel statute, the law that brought us Ken Starr, to expire as Bush assumed office. And the right-wing media — cable news, talk radio, several newspapers — are not about to replicate the drumbeat of scandal they pounded out while Clinton held office. Thus scandals are not a defining part of the GOP’s current identity.
The Democrats, terminally cautious even in the minority, seem unlikely to change this dynamic — although Harry Reid, the Democrats’ new Senate leader, has announced his party will hold monthly oversight hearings, beginning this January, on “unasked and unanswered questions” about the Bush administration. Reid’s project, however, is an uphill battle. The Democrats cannot compel anyone to testify, unlike standard congressional committees, and memorable rhetoric is not a party strength. “This is about honesty and accountability and reforming our federal government,” Reid said in the prepared statement the Democratic Policy Committee released about its oversight plans.
Just think: Someone prepared that quote. To put it more bluntly than Reid did: This is about the dozens of scandals occurring while the Republican Party has enjoyed almost complete control over the federal government. This is about the GOP’s utter disrespect for the laws of the United States. This is about stopping greed, bribery and influence-peddling.
Indeed, here are 34 Republican scandals worthy of further attention, gathered into one place. The list focuses on scandals involving apparently illegal activity or violations of ethics codes. Not everything that is politically, legally or ethically scandalous constitutes a scandal. It is scandalous, for instance, that House Republicans have further weakened their own ethics committee. But that is not, properly speaking, a political scandal. It is just contemptible governance.
This list is also limited to events of the past four years, or those coming to light in that time. It covers both the executive branch and the Congress, since the latter, especially the Senate, is increasingly a mere adjunct to the White House. However, the items are not arranged in terms of moral or historical gravity. Abu Ghraib might create years of anti-American hatred abroad, but it and some other headline-generating events appear near the end of the list, to help familiarize readers first with lesser-known or now-overlooked scandals. Recall how John Ashcroft broke the law? Know why Dick Cheney wants to keep those energy task force documents secret? Read on. You too, Harry Reid.
1. Memogate: The Senate Computer Theft
The scandal: From 2001 to 2003, Republican staffers on the Senate Judiciary Committee illicitly accessed nearly 5,000 computer files containing confidential Democratic strategy memos about President Bush’s judicial nominees. The GOP used the memos to shape their own plans and leaked some to the media.
The problem: The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act states it is illegal to obtain confidential information from a government computer.
The outcome: Unresolved. The Justice Department has assigned a prosecutor to the case. The staff member at the heart of the matter, Manuel Miranda, has attempted to brazen it out, filing suit in September 2004 against the DOJ to end the investigation. “A grand jury will indict a ham sandwich,” Miranda complained. Some jokes just write themselves.
2. Doctor Detroit: The DOJ’s Bungled Terrorism Case
The scandal: The Department of Justice completely botched the nation’s first post-9/11 terrorism trial, as seen when the convictions of three Detroit men allegedly linked to al-Qaida were overturned in September 2004. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft had claimed their June 2003 sentencing sent “a clear message” that the government would “detect, disrupt and dismantle the activities of terrorist cells.”
The problem: The DOJ’s lead prosecutor in the case, Richard Convertino, withheld key information from the defense and distorted supposed pieces of evidence — like a Las Vegas vacation video purported to be a surveillance tape. But that’s not the half of it. Convertino says he was unfairly scapegoated because he testified before the Senate, against DOJ wishes, about terrorist financing. Justice’s reconsideration of the case began soon thereafter. Convertino has since sued the DOJ, which has also placed him under investigation.
The outcome: Let’s see: Overturned convictions, lawsuits and feuding about a Kafkaesque case. Nobody looks good here.
3. Dark Matter: The Energy Task Force
The scandal: A lawsuit has claimed it is illegal for Dick Cheney to keep the composition of his 2001 energy-policy task force secret. What’s the big deal? The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer has suggested an explosive aspect of the story, citing a National Security Council memo from February 2001, which “directed the N.S.C. staff to cooperate fully with the Energy Task Force as it considered the ‘melding’ of … ‘operational policies towards rogue states,’ such as Iraq, and ‘actions regarding the capture of new and existing oil and gas fields.’” In short, the task force’s activities could shed light on the administration’s pre-9/11 Iraq aims.
The problem: The Federal Advisory Committee Act says the government must disclose the work of groups that include non-federal employees; the suit claims energy industry executives were effectively task force members. Oh, and the Bush administration has portrayed the Iraq war as a response to 9/11, not something it was already considering.
The outcome: Unresolved. In June 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to an appellate court.
4. The Indian Gaming Scandal
The scandal: Potential influence peddling to the tune of $82 million, for starters. Jack Abramoff, a GOP lobbyist and major Bush fundraiser, and Michael Scanlon, a former aide to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), received that amount from several Indian tribes, while offering access to lawmakers. For instance, Texas’ Tigua tribe, which wanted its closed El Paso casino reopened, gave millions to the pair and $33,000 to Rep. Robert Ney (R-Ohio) in hopes of favorable legislation (Ney came up empty). And get this: The Tiguas were unaware that Abramoff, Scanlon and conservative activist Ralph Reed had earned millions lobbying to have the same casino shut in 2002.
The problem: Federal officials want to know if Abramoff and Scanlon provided real services for the $82 million, and if they broke laws while backing candidates in numerous Indian tribe elections.
The outcome: Everybody into the cesspool! The Senate Indian Affairs Committee and five federal agencies, including the FBI, IRS, and Justice Department, are investigating.
5. Halliburton’s No-Bid Bonanza
The scandal: In February 2003, Halliburton received a five-year, $7 billion no-bid contract for services in Iraq.
The problem: The Army Corps of Engineers’ top contracting officer, Bunnatine Greenhouse, objected to the deal, saying the contract should be the standard one-year length, and that a Halliburton official should not have been present during the discussions.
The outcome: The FBI is investigating. The $7 billion contract was halved and Halliburton won one of the parts in a public bid. For her troubles, Greenhouse has been forced into whistle-blower protection.
6. Halliburton: Pumping Up Prices
The scandal: In 2003, Halliburton overcharged the army for fuel in Iraq. Specifically, Halliburton’s subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root hired a Kuwaiti company, Altanmia, to supply fuel at about twice the going rate, then added a markup, for an overcharge of at least $61 million, according to a December 2003 Pentagon audit.
The problem: That’s not the government’s $61 million, it’s our $61 million.
The outcome: The FBI is investigating.
7. Halliburton’s Vanishing Iraq Money
The scandal: In mid-2004, Pentagon auditors determined that $1.8 billion of Halliburton’s charges to the government, about 40 percent of the total, had not been adequately documented.
The problem: That’s not the government’s $1.8 billion, it’s our $1.8 billion.
The outcome: The Defense Contract Audit Agency has “strongly” asked the Army to withhold about $60 million a month from its Halliburton payments until the documentation is provided.
8. The Halliburton Bribe-apalooza
The scandal: This may not surprise you, but an international consortium of companies, including Halliburton, is alleged to have paid more than $100 million in bribes to Nigerian officials, from 1995 to 2002, to facilitate a natural-gas-plant deal. (Cheney was Halliburton’s CEO from 1995 to 2000.)
The problem: The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prohibits U.S. companies from bribing foreign officials.
The outcome: A veritable coalition of the willing is investigating the deal, including the Justice Department, the SEC, the Nigerian government and a French magistrate. In June, Halliburton fired two implicated executives.
9. Halliburton: One Fine Company
The scandal: In 1998 and 1999, Halliburton counted money recovered from project overruns as revenue, before settling the charges with clients.
The problem: Doing so made the company’s income appear larger, but Halliburton did not explain this to investors. The SEC ruled this accounting practice was “materially misleading.”
The outcome: In August 2004, Halliburton agreed to pay a $7.5 million fine to settle SEC charges. One Halliburton executive has paid a fine and another is settling civil charges. Now imagine the right-wing rhetoric if, say, Al Gore had once headed a firm fined for fudging income statements.
10. Halliburton’s Iran End Run
The scandal: Halliburton may have been doing business with Iran while Cheney was CEO.
The problem: Federal sanctions have banned U.S. companies from dealing directly with Iran. To operate in Iran legally, U.S. companies have been required to set up independent subsidiaries registered abroad. Halliburton thus set up a new entity, Halliburton Products and Services Ltd., to do business in Iran, but while the subsidiary was registered in the Cayman Islands, it may not have had operations totally independent of the parent company.
The outcome: Unresolved. The Treasury Department has referred the case to the U.S. attorney in Houston, who convened a grand jury in July 2004.
11. Money Order: Afghanistan’s Missing $700 Million Turns Up in Iraq
The scandal: According to Bob Woodward’s “Plan of Attack,” the Bush administration diverted $700 million in funds from the war in Afghanistan, among other places, to prepare for the Iraq invasion.
The problem: Article I, Section 8, Clause 12 of the U.S. Constitution specifically gives Congress the power “to raise and support armies.” And the emergency spending bill passed after Sept. 11, 2001, requires the administration to notify Congress before changing war spending plans. That did not happen.
The outcome: Congress declined to investigate. The administration’s main justification for its decision has been to claim the funds were still used for, one might say, Middle East anti-tyrant-related program activities.
12. Iraq: More Loose Change
The scandal: The inspector general of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq released a series of reports in July 2004 finding that a significant portion of CPA assets had gone missing — 34 percent of the materiel controlled by Kellogg, Brown & Root — and that the CPA’s method of disbursing $600 million in Iraq reconstruction funds “did not establish effective controls and left accountability open to fraud, waste and abuse.”
The problem: As much as $50 million of that money was disbursed without proper receipts.
The outcome: The CPA has disbanded, but individual government investigations into the handling of Iraq’s reconstruction continue.
13. The Pentagon-Israel Spy Case
The scandal: A Pentagon official, Larry Franklin, may have passed classified United States documents about Iran to Israel, possibly via the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a Washington lobbying group.
The problem: To do so could be espionage or could constitute the mishandling of classified documents.
The outcome: A grand jury is investigating. In December 2004, the FBI searched AIPAC’s offices. A Senate committee has also been investigating the apparently unauthorized activities of the Near East and South Asia Affairs group in the Pentagon, where Franklin works.
14. Gone to Taiwan
The scandal: Missed this one? A high-ranking State Department official, Donald Keyser, was arrested and charged in September with making a secret trip to Taiwan and was observed by the FBI passing documents to Taiwanese intelligence agents in Washington-area meetings.
The problem: Such unauthorized trips are illegal. And we don’t have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
The outcome: The case is in the courts.
15. Wiretapping the United Nations
The scandal: Before the United Nations’ vote on the Iraq war, the United States and Great Britain developed an eavesdropping operation targeting diplomats from several countries.
The problem: U.N. officials say the practice is illegal and undermines honest diplomacy, although some observers claim it is business as usual on East 42nd Street.
The outcome: Little fuss here, but a major British scandal erupted after U.K. intelligence translator Katherine Gun leaked a U.S. National Security Agency memo requesting British help in the spying scheme, in early 2003. Initially charged under Britain’s Official Secrets Act for leaking classified information, Gun was cleared in 2004 — seemingly to avoid hearings questioning the legality of Britain’s war participation.
16. The Boeing Boondoggle
The scandal: In 2003, the Air Force contracted with Boeing to lease a fleet of refueling tanker planes at an inflated price: $23 billion.
The problem: The deal was put together by a government procurement official, Darleen Druyun, who promptly joined Boeing. Beats using a headhunter.
The outcome: In November 2003, Boeing fired both Druyun and CFO Michael Sears. In April 2004, Druyun pled guilty to a conspiracy charge in the case. In November 2004, Sears copped to a conflict-of-interest charge, and company CEO Phil Condit resigned. The government is reviewing its need for the tankers.
17. The Medicare Bribe Scandal
The scandal: According to former Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.), on Nov. 21, 2003, with the vote on the administration’s Medicare bill hanging in the balance, someone offered to contribute $100,000 to his son’s forthcoming congressional campaign, if Smith would support the bill.
The problem: Federal law prohibits the bribery of elected officials.
The outcome: In September 2004, the House Ethics Committee concluded an inquiry by fingering House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), saying he deserved “public admonishment” for offering to endorse Smith’s son in return for Smith’s vote. DeLay has claimed Smith initiated talks about a quid pro quo. The matter of the $100,000 is unresolved; soon after his original allegations, Smith suddenly claimed he had not been offered any money. Smith’s son Brad lost his GOP primary in August 2004.
18. Tom DeLay’s PAC Problems
The scandal: One of DeLay’s political action committees, Texans for a Republican Majority, apparently reaped illegal corporate contributions for the campaigns of Republicans running for the Texas Legislature in 2002. Given a Republican majority, the Legislature then re-drew Texas’ U.S. congressional districts to help the GOP.
The problem: Texas law bans the use of corporate money for political purposes.
The outcome: Unresolved. Three DeLay aides and associates — Jim Ellis, John Colyandro and Warren RoBold — were charged in September 2004 with crimes including money laundering and unlawful acceptance of corporate contributions.
19. Tom DeLay’s FAA: Following Americans Anywhere
The scandal: In May 2003, DeLay’s office persuaded the Federal Aviation Administration to find the plane carrying a Texas Democratic legislator, who was leaving the state in an attempt to thwart the GOP’s nearly unprecedented congressional redistricting plan.
The problem: According to the House Ethics Committee, the “invocation of federal executive branch resources in a partisan dispute before a state legislative body” is wrong.
The outcome: In October 2004, the committee rebuked DeLay for his actions.
20. In the Rough: Tom DeLay’s Golf Fundraiser
The scandal: DeLay appeared at a golf fundraiser that Westar Energy held for one of his political action committees, Americans for a Republican Majority, while energy legislation was pending in the House.
The problem: It’s one of these “appearance of impropriety” situations.
The outcome: The House Ethics Committee tossed the matter into its Oct. 6 rebuke. “Take a lap, Tom.”
21. Busy, Busy, Busy in New Hampshire
The scandal: In 2002, with a tight Senate race in New Hampshire, Republican Party officials paid a Virginia-based firm, GOP Marketplace, to enact an Election Day scheme meant to depress Democratic turnout by “jamming” the Democratic Party phone bank with continuous calls for 90 minutes.
The problem: Federal law prohibits the use of telephones to “annoy or harass” anyone.
The outcome: Chuck McGee, the former executive director of the New Hampshire GOP, pleaded guilty in July 2004 to a felony charge, while Allen Raymond, former head of GOP Marketplace, pleaded guilty to a similar charge in June. In December, James Tobin, former New England campaign chairman of Bush-Cheney ’04, was indicted for conspiracy in the case.
22. The Medicare Money Scandal
The scandal: Thomas Scully, Medicare’s former administrator, supposedly threatened to fire chief Medicare actuary Richard Foster to prevent him from disclosing the true cost of the 2003 Medicare bill.
The problem: Congress voted on the bill believing it would cost $400 billion over 10 years. The program is more likely to cost $550 billion.
The outcome: Scully denies threatening to fire Foster, as Foster has charged, but admits telling Foster to withhold the higher estimate from Congress. In September 2004, the Government Accountability Office recommended Scully return half his salary from 2003. Inevitably, Scully is now a lobbyist for drug companies helped by the bill.
23. The Bogus Medicare “Video News Release”
The scandal: To promote its Medicare bill, the Bush administration produced imitation news-report videos touting the legislation. About 40 television stations aired the videos. More recently, similar videos promoting the administration’s education policy have come to light.
The problem: The administration broke two laws: One forbidding the use of federal money for propaganda, and another forbidding the unauthorized use of federal funds.
The outcome: In May 2004, the GAO concluded the administration acted illegally, but the agency lacks enforcement power.
24. Pundits on the Payroll: The Armstrong Williams Case
The scandal: The Department of Education paid conservative commentator Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote its educational law, No Child Left Behind.
The problem: Williams did not disclose that his support was government funded until the deal was exposed in January 2005.
The outcome: The House and FCC are considering inquiries, while Williams’ syndicated newspaper column has been terminated.
25. Ground Zero’s Unsafe Air
The scandal: Government officials publicly minimized the health risks stemming from the World Trade Center attack. In September 2001, for example, Environmental Protection Agency head Christine Todd Whitman said New York’s “air is safe to breathe and [the] water is safe to drink.”
The problem: Research showed serious dangers or was incomplete. The EPA used outdated techniques that failed to detect tiny asbestos particles. EPA data also showed high levels of lead and benzene, which causes cancer. A Sierra Club report claims the government ignored alarming data. A GAO report says no adequate study of 9/11′s health effects has been organized.
The outcome: The long-term health effects of the disaster will likely not be apparent for years or decades and may never be definitively known. Already, hundreds of 9/11 rescue workers have quit their jobs because of acute illnesses.
26. John Ashcroft’s Illegal Campaign Contributions
The scandal: Ashcroft’s exploratory committee for his short-lived 2000 presidential bid transferred $110,000 to his unsuccessful 2000 reelection campaign for the Senate.
The problem: The maximum for such a transfer is $10,000.
The outcome: The Federal Election Commission fined Ashcroft’s campaign treasurer, Garrett Lott, $37,000 for the transgression.
27. Intel Inside … The White House
The scandal: In early 2001, chief White House political strategist Karl Rove held meetings with numerous companies while maintaining six-figure holdings of their stock — including Intel, whose executives were seeking government approval of a merger. “Washington hadn’t seen a clearer example of a conflict of interest in years,” wrote Paul Glastris in the Washington Monthly.
The problem: The Code of Federal Regulations says government employees should not participate in matters in which they have a personal financial interest.
The outcome: Then White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, spurning precedent, did not refer the case to the Justice Department.
28. Duck! Antonin Scalia’s Legal Conflicts
The scandal: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia refused to recuse himself from the Cheney energy task force case, despite taking a duck-hunting trip with the vice president after the court agreed to weigh the matter.
The problem: Federal law requires a justice to “disqualify himself from any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”
The outcome: Scalia stayed on, arguing no conflict existed because Cheney was party to the case in a professional, not personal, capacity. Nothing new for Scalia, who in 2002 was part of a Mississippi redistricting ruling favorable to GOP Rep. Chip Pickering — son of Judge Charles Pickering, a Scalia turkey-hunting pal. In 2001, Scalia went pheasant hunting with Kansas Gov. Bill Graves when that state had cases pending before the Supreme Court.
The scandal: George W. Bush, self-described “war president,” did not fulfill his National Guard duty, and Bush and his aides have made misleading statements about it. Salon’s Eric Boehlert wrote the best recent summary of the issue.
The problem: Military absenteeism is a punishable offense, although Bush received an honorable discharge.
The outcome: No longer a campaign issue. But what was Bush doing in 1972?
30. Iraq: The Case for War
The scandal: Bush and many officials in his administration made false statements about Iraq’s military capabilities, in the months before the United States’ March 2003 invasion of the country.
The problem: For one thing, it is a crime to lie to Congress, although Bush backers claim the president did not knowingly make false assertions.
The outcome: A war spun out of control with unknowable long-term consequences. The Iraq Survey Group has stopped looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
31. Niger Forgeries: Whodunit?
The scandal: In his January 2003 State of the Union address, Bush said, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
The problem: The statement was untrue. By March 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency showed the claim, that Iraq sought materials from Niger, was based on easily discernible forgeries.
The outcome: The identity of the forger(s) remains under wraps. Journalist Josh Marshall has implied the FBI is oddly uninterested in interviewing Rocco Martino, the former Italian intelligence agent who apparently first shopped the documents in intelligence and journalistic circles and would presumably be able to shed light on their origin.
32. In Plame Sight
The scandal: In July 2003, administration officials disclosed the identity of Valerie Plame, a CIA operative working on counterterrorism efforts, to multiple journalists, and columnist Robert Novak made Plame’s identity public. Plame’s husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, had just written a New York Times opinion piece stating he had investigated the Niger uranium-production allegations, at the CIA’s behest, and reported them to be untrue, before Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address.
The problem: Under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act it is illegal to disclose, knowingly, the name of an undercover agent.
The outcome: Unresolved. The Justice Department appointed special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to the case in December 2003. While this might seem a simple matter, Fitzgerald could be unable to prove the leakers knew Plame was a covert agent.
33. Abu Ghraib
The scandal: American soldiers physically tortured prisoners in Iraq and kept undocumented “ghost detainees” in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
The problem: The United States is party to the Geneva Conventions, which state that “No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever.”
The outcome: Unresolved. A Pentagon internal inquiry found a lack of oversight at Abu Ghraib, while independent inquiries have linked the events to the administration’s desire to use aggressive interrogation methods globally. Notoriously, Gonzales has advocated an approach which “renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.” More recently, Gonzales issued qualified support for the Geneva Conventions in January 2005 Senate testimony after being nominated for attorney general. Army reservist Charles Graner was convicted in January 2005 for abusing prisoners, while a few other soldiers await trial.
34. Guantánamo Bay Torture?
The scandal: The U.S. military is also alleged to have abused prisoners at the U.S. Navy’s base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. FBI agents witnessing interrogations there have reported use of growling dogs to frighten prisoners and the chaining of prisoners in the fetal position while depriving them of food or water for extended periods.
The problem: More potential violations of the Geneva Conventions.
The outcome: An internal military investigation was launched in January 2005.