last Thursday, the management of ABC News abruptly canceled a segment of its "20/20" news magazine which was scheduled to be broadcast the following night. The segment, based on a new book called "Inside Congress: The Shocking Scandals, Corruption, and Abuse of Power Behind the Scenes on Capitol Hill" (Pocket Books), was pulled, according to network executives, because it needed more reporting. The author of the book, Ronald Kessler, contends that the network, fearful of political repercussions, chickened out at the last moment.
In the book, which hits the bookstores this week, Kessler describes previously unreported cases of alleged corruption, abuse of power and sexual excesses by congressional members and their staffs. Kessler, a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal investigative reporter and the author of previous exposis on the CIA and the FBI, says he based his reporting on interviews with 350 Capitol Hill employees, including police and doorkeepers as well as congressional staffers and members themselves. What he found, he says, is a Congress "out of control."
Salon spoke with Kessler by phone from New York.
Why do you think ABC spiked the "20/20" piece?
The story had been approved by the executive producer (Victor Neufeld), the person in charge of standards, by the lawyers. It was all set to go. Then last Thursday night, (ABC News Chairman) Roone Arledge and (ABC News President) David Westin said they wanted to see it, which is very unusual. And they killed it. The claimed reason was they wanted it to be based on their own reporting. Well, it was based on their own reporting. We're talking about Capitol Police, staffers, members -- on camera -- not me, but people who are in the book. So I believe it's quite clear that they're afraid of Congress. They're afraid of all the telecommunications issues that ABC and its parent, Disney, want passed, so they don't want to offend anyone.
(ABC spokeswoman Eileen Murphy told Salon that because there were not a sufficient number of on-camera interviews with identified sources, the program "didn't meet ABC's standards for a television news piece.")
What did your reporting turn up?
What I found was a Congress that is out-of-control. Wild sexual activities behind the scenes. Outrageous expenditures and abuse of power. Example: Silk-covered chairs, costing $20,000 each, are made routinely for members, including the entire leadership. These are the guys who go on TV routinely and talk about how we have to cut Medicare and Medicaid and reduce the budget. Yet here they are sitting on $20,000 chairs, all at the taxpayers' expense.
Who sits on those chairs?
Gingrich and the Republican leadership, as well as the entire Democratic leadership.
You mentioned sexual excesses. What kind?
How about gangbangs in the Dirksen (Senate Office Building) attic? A few years ago, a female staffer on one of the Senate committees would actually go up there routinely and have a good time with a whole string of men, members as well as staffers.
Do you have the names of those who participated?
Yes, but I don't name them. But they are based upon on-the-record accounts from participants, Capitol Hill police officers and also one female witness.
Did you find any more current examples?
Many members routinely have affairs in their "hideaway offices," which are in the Capitol building just off the House and Senate floor. They don't have any names on them and the member is the only one who has the key. And they do whatever they want there, which includes frequently having sex with female staffers.
One of the allegations in your book concerns Rep. Sonny Bono (R-Calif.).
Yes. He sexually harassed an intern on his staff, a woman named Frederique Sandretto. She was on a Fulbright scholarship from France and working on Bono's staff, writing a report on terrorism. He started making passes at her -- lines like, "I think you're beautiful," "Do you have a boyfriend?" and "Do you like your boyfriend?" Finally, Bono gave her a ring and told her not to tell her boyfriend. When she rejected the ring and rejected his advances, she found herself relegated to fetching coffee and cokes.
(Frank Cullen, a spokesman for Bono, told Salon that Kessler's allegations were "untrue and totally unfounded." A source close to Bono, who did not wish to be quoted by name, said the intern was "disgruntled" because the head of the House Republican Committee on Terrorism would not allow her to work on the terrorism project. The source said no complaint had been filed against Bono)
You say that Capitol Hill police often catch members committing offenses but "unarrest" them. What does that mean?
It's a term that only the Capitol Police have. It doesn't exist in law, but it means simply forgetting about an offense that was committed, tearing up the paperwork and pretending it never happened.
Give me an example.
One night a few years back, a member from Michigan who is no longer serving was driving drunk and plowed into a whole string of cars. He was arrested by a Capitol Police officer, who didn't realize he was a member. When the officer's superior came on the scene, he instructed the officer, "Unarrest him," which means drop all the charges and don't even make a record of it. And that's what he had to do.
In another instance, Sen. Ted Kennedy, during his drinking days, drove through a red light and almost ran over a Capitol Police officer. The officer stopped him and tried to get him in a taxi, but again, his superior came over and said, "Do you know who that is?" and ordered the officer to give Kennedy his keys back. And Kennedy, still drunk, got back in his car and drove away.
You charge that Congress has been totally corrupted by money. How, specifically?
Congress by definition is corrupt because it has allowed members to take millions of dollars from special interests that nobody else in government is allowed to take. If someone in the executive branch or a judge took money and then made a decision on the person giving the money, they'd be put in jail. For example, just recently the Senate delayed its adjournment for two days simply to pass a measure that benefits Federal Express. Now, Federal Express gives these Senators huge campaign contributions and also takes them on their planes at reduced cost. So what we really have is a Congress that is bought and paid for by special interests.
You paint a grim picture. Are there no good, decent people in Congress rising above the muck?
Well, you have to look back in time. Sen. Phil Hart (D-Mich.) was someone who was totally honorable and respected. But he's dead now, and there are very few left like that, maybe 20 or so. I have member after member saying on the record that they have become corrupted, that every piece of legislation is influenced by money, that Washington is a corrupt place. They also hate the fact that they have to raise money all the time, yet they do. Almost invariably, when you look into someone's background, you find that there's something fishy. Most of them take PAC (political action committee) money, and that, by definition, is corrupting.
What's the solution to this kind of corruption?
The solution, in my opinion, lies in public financing of elections. Also, voters have to focus more on who they're electing. I mean, if someone divorces his wife while she had cancer and refuses to pay sufficient child support, that should be a reason not to vote for that person. After all, you wouldn't hire someone like that or choose someone with that kind of background as a friend. Yet here we have that type of person as the Speaker of the House. It's the same with President Clinton. If you know that someone compulsively engaged in philandering and showed arrogance and poor judgment while serving as a governor, you wouldn't hire or befriend that person. Yet we elected that kind of person president, not once but twice. That's the kind of thinking that has to change.