The GOP’s spreading plague

Voters are notoriously slow in voting out politicians accused of corruption, but they may reach the tipping point with the latest revelations.

Topics: Tom Delay, Republican Party,

To be an honest Republican these days must be to wonder what awful revelation is coming next — and how the Grand Old Party, which once claimed to represent political reform, became a front for sleaze, corruption and cynical criminality. Across the country, from the Capitol to statehouses, Republican officials are under indictment, under investigation or under suspicion.

This week’s headlines featured the indictment of Rep. Tom DeLay and the probe of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, but the infection of venality among their fellow partisans is now reaching epidemic proportions. So widespread is the plague that keeping track of all the individual cases, and their increasingly baroque variations, has become a distinct challenge.

Consider Jack Abramoff, once the prince of K Street lobbyists and a dedicated right-wing ideologue who boasted of his powerful connections to DeLay, Karl Rove, Grover Norquist and the entire Republican apparatus in Washington. Already under investigation by the Justice Department for his influence peddling among House members, including DeLay, and his swindling of Indian tribes, Abramoff was indicted last month for bank fraud in a separate South Florida case involving a casino boat company that he partly owned.

The fraud allegedly committed by Abramoff and his business partner Adam Kidan involved a phony wire transfer they used to purchase a controlling interest in SunCruz from the company’s founder, Konstantinos “Gus” Boulis, in 2001.

Abramoff and Kidan later fell out with Boulis in a bitter business dispute that turned violent. In February 2001, gunmen ambushed Boulis on a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., highway and shot him repeatedly. On Tuesday, Florida authorities arrested three New York men with mob connections for the Boulis killing. Two of the men — Anthony Moscatiello and Tony Ferrari — had received payments totaling more than $240,000 from Kidan and Abramoff. Moscatiello, a longtime associate of the Gambino Mafia family, and Ferrari were supposedly providing food and consulting services to SunCruz — or so Kidan claimed when questioned by prosecutors. There is no evidence, however, that Moscatiello and Ferrari provided any services to the company.

Connecting the dots isn’t difficult here: Kidan and Abramoff want to get rid of Boulis, who won’t go away. Kidan and Abramoff hire Moscatiello and Ferrari with SunCruz money. Moscatiello and Ferrari allegedly whack Boulis, without any motive of their own. If the Broward County state’s attorney has sufficient evidence to win convictions for a capital crime, some people will probably be talking soon in hope of avoiding the hot shot.

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The stunning fall of Abramoff, who has yet to hit bottom, is certainly the most colorful tale of Republican depravity. The corporate money laundering to Texas politicians that led to DeLay’s conspiracy indictment, and the suspicious insider stock transaction that spurred investigations of Frist by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission, seem mundane by comparison. Outrage will be warranted if their misconduct is proved, but everyone sadly knows that these felonies are now common practice in our political and corporate culture.

Corporate misbehavior has also brought down right-wing publisher Conrad Black, neoconservative strategist and former Bush advisor Richard Perle and the entire corporate board of Hollinger Inc., the Republican-friendly media conglomerate formerly controlled by Lord Black — and that he and others are plausibly accused of illicitly looting for their own benefit. Furious shareholders forced Black to relinquish control of the company and are suing him, as well as Perle and former Black deputy David Radler, for $500 million. The SEC is also suing Black and Radler, and the Justice Department is investigating the former Hollinger directors.

Last month, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who also happens to be the special prosecutor in the Valerie Plame case, accepted Radler’s guilty plea to mail fraud and wire fraud. Radler is now believed to be cooperating in the prosecution of what former SEC chairman Richard Breeden, a Republican who investigated Hollinger on behalf of shareholders, termed a “corporate kleptocracy.”

Kleptocratic morality evidently ruled at least two Republican statehouses in the Midwest as well. Currently under indictment are former Gov. George Ryan of Illinois, whose trial on bribery charges began last week, and Gov. Robert Taft of Ohio, who pleaded no contest last month to charges of accepting illegal gifts from a state contractor.

That contractor is Thomas Noe, a coin dealer who received lucrative investment deals with the state’s Workers Compensation Fund and is now at the center of a gigantic scandal known as “Coingate.” More than $12 million has disappeared from the fund, and former GOP official Noe stands accused of laundering money to various Republican politicians, including the Bush-Cheney campaign. Like Abramoff, Noe is a Bush “Pioneer,” responsible for raising at least $100,000 for the president last year.

Still another Pioneer is currently under criminal investigation in a celebrated corruption case involving Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a prominent Republican representative from San Diego with a senior position on the House defense appropriations subcommittee. On Aug. 18, FBI and IRS agents raided the offices of defense contractor and Bush fundraiser Brent Wilkes.

Wilkes is reportedly a former business associate of Mitchell J. Wade, the head of a defense contracting firm called MZM Inc. who is under investigation in San Diego for alleged bribery of Cunningham. According to newspaper reports, Wade purchased a home owned by Cunningham at a price inflated by at least $700,000, and also permitted the congressman to use his 42-foot yacht free of charge. Federal agents searched Wade’s offices in July.

Although prosecutors have brought no criminal charges in the case yet, they have filed civil court documents describing the home sale as a violation of federal bribery laws — and Cunningham, who has served in Congress for decades, has already announced that he will not seek another term next year.

The Republican National Committee’s new treasurer, Robert Kjellander, is under investigation too. (Naturally, he is also a Bush Pioneer.) Not long after he assumed his new post at the party’s Washington headquarters, Kjellander received a federal subpoena for records of his dealings with the Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System, a state pension fund, and the Carlyle Group. Federal prosecutors are reportedly looking into alleged corruption at the fund, and have asked Kjellander to provide information about a $4.5 million fee he received from Carlyle for his role in arranging investments by the fund with the huge private equity fund. Carlyle, of course, is closely connected to the Bush administration, including the president’s father, George H.W. Bush, who has worked for the firm as a rainmaker and advisor.

In fairness, it should be said that all these pols and parasites may be innocent (except for those already convicted), or at least not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It is also true that voters have historically been slow to evict politicians from office because of corruption charges.

But public opinion of congressional Republicans is hitting new lows, and Americans are growing furious about the war in Iraq, the government response to Hurricane Katrina and rising energy prices. The natural impulse to throw the rascals out can only be encouraged by the Gilded Age spectacles now unfolding in Washington and in cities across the country as the indictments continue to come down between now and November 2006.

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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