AP, NY Times, ABC reports on GOP effort to cast Boehner as break from corruption scandals ignored tobacco PAC controversy

››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

The Associated Press, The New York Times, and ABC's World News Tonight reported on Republican efforts to present new House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-OH) as a clean break from GOP corruption scandals, but they ignored criticism Boehner received for passing out checks from a tobacco industry group on the House floor moments before a key tobacco vote, as well as other ethical questions raised by Boehner's record.

In reports on Republican efforts to present new House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-OH) as a clean break from GOP corruption scandals that threaten to impact the midterm elections, the Associated Press, The New York Times, and ABC's World News Tonight ignored criticism Boehner received for passing out checks from a tobacco industry group on the House floor moments before a key tobacco vote, as well as other ethical questions raised by Boehner's record. The Times article omitted reference to the incident, despite the paper's having described it as a "memorable moment" in a January 18 article. The AP had also flagged the incident in articles on January 11 and January 14. Both outlets mentioned the incident in secondary articles on February 3, but not in the main articles about the House leadership election, which purported to document GOP efforts to put the ethics scandals behind them.

In a February 3 article, Associated Press staff writer Jesse J. Holland omitted any reference to the tobacco political action committee checks, a highly publicized incident over which Boehner ultimately apologized. Similarly, a February 3 New York Times front-page article by reporter Carl Hulse ignored the tobacco controversy while reporting that Boehner's ascension occurred "as Republicans, worried about a corruption scandal and their own tarnished image, tried to distance themselves from the tenure of Representative Tom DeLay (R-TX)." A second Times article by reporter Adam Nagourney also ignored the tobacco checks incident, even while noting Republican strategist Rich Galen's assertion that Boehner's main opponent for majority leader, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-MO), was hurt by being "married to a tobacco lobbyist." In a February 2 report on World News Tonight, anchor Elizabeth Vargas ignored Boehner's advocacy for the tobacco industry while reporting that Boehner "campaigned as a reformer amid congressional nervousness over a lobbying scandal."

The omissions by the AP and the Times come despite prior reports by both outlets on Boehner's majority leader bid that noted the tobacco industry checks, with a January 18 Times article even noting that the incident was "a memorable moment in 1996 that Mr. Boehner now says he regrets." A January 11 AP report noted that Boehner "admitted he distributed a tobacco political action committee's campaign checks on the House floor, but said at the time he would never do it again," while a January 14 AP article similarly reported that "Boehner was forced to apologize in the mid-1990s for distributing checks from tobacco companies to his colleagues as they worked on the House floor."

Moreover, similar reports about Boehner's February 2 ascension by The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, NBC, and CBS -- as well as secondary reports by the AP and The New York Times -- noted Boehner's tobacco PAC controversy, while a report by The Wall Street Journal provided additional details of ethics concerns involving Boehner:

According to Public Citizen, a liberal public-interest group, Mr. Boehner has accepted $150,000 in free trips from the private sector since 2000, more than all but six other members of Congress. At the same time, two dozen of his former staffers have spun through Washington's revolving door to become lobbyists.

[...]

Mr. Boehner, like Reps. Blunt and DeLay, also brings his own baggage from the Washington lobbying community. The single biggest contributor to his political action committee is student-loan provider Sallie Mae, a company with a huge stake in issues before Mr. Boehner's Education Committee. Sallie Mae, the largest of the private student-loan providers, wants to retain the generous federal subsidies it receives for its loans and make competing loans from the government more expensive by preserving various fees. Sallie Mae has contributed $122,500 to Mr. Boehner's PAC, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

[...]

Of his own ties to Washington's K Street lobbying row, Mr. Boehner said lobbyists "appreciate dealing with someone who they know who they are. There's nothing improper or unethical about my relationship with those who lobby."

Among those closest to him is Bruce Gates, a tax lobbyist with Washington Council Ernst & Young and head of Mr. Boehner's Freedom Project PAC. Mr. Gates, whose wife once worked for Mr. Boehner, is a lobbyist for several clients, including Delta Airlines, that have business before the education and workforce committee.

In the 2004 presidential-election cycle, Mr. Boehner contributed $770,000 to the re-election campaigns of his colleagues, up from $540,000 in the 2000 presidential cycle. Those campaign donations were key to Mr. Boehner's victory yesterday. Four of five of his early supporters in his campaign for majority leader received donations from him. In December, Mr. Boehner's PAC distributed $180,000 to House Republicans.

Two of Mr. Boehner's lobbyist friends throw a late-night party for him every four years at the Republican National Convention. The parties, known as Mr. Boehner's "Best Little Warehouse" parties, cost more than $100,000 and are paid for by U.S. corporations. The events are organized by Mr. Gates and lobbyist Henry Gandy.

Although he campaigned as a reformer, Boehner (pronounced BAY-ner) is no stranger to Washington. In the early 1990s, he was one of the zealous "Gang of Seven" that pushed to expose a check-kiting scandal in the House bank. But once in the leadership, he avidly cultivated ties to the K Street lobbying community. He made headlines for handing out checks from tobacco interests to colleagues on the House floor.

Boehner has had his share of taint. He handed out checks from tobacco lobbyists on the House floor in 1995 while lawmakers were weighing tobacco subsidies. In 2004, he allowed Sallie Mae to throw him a fundraiser while the student lending outfit was lobbying his committee. And he is a frequent flier on trips paid for by special interests.

Rep. John A. Boehner, with his ever-present cigarette, seems like a throwback to the days of Capitol Hill's smoke-filled rooms.

He is hip-deep in political contributions from an industry he oversees. He was once scolded for passing out campaign checks from tobacco interests on the House floor. He was booted from a leadership post eight years ago.

But with his election Thursday as the new House majority leader, the Ohio Republican has emerged -- phoenix-like -- as his party's agent of change in the post-Tom DeLay era.

Boehner received $32,500 from Indian tribes represented by Abramoff, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. Boehner says the contributions were legal and has declined to give them up, as about 100 of his colleagues have done with Abramoff-related donations. He also raised eyebrows in 1995 for distributing campaign checks from tobacco interests on the House floor -- something that has since been banned by Republican leaders.

  • A report by NBC News correspondent Chip Reid on the February 2 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News:

REID: John Boehner, after all, is a longtime Washington insider with deep ties to some powerful lobbying interests. He once had to apologize for handing out checks from tobacco companies to his colleagues on the House floor. In the 1990s, he was a top deputy to Speaker Newt Gingrich.

  • A report by CBS News contributor Gloria Borger on the February 2 edition of the CBS Evening News:

BORGER: He may call himself a reformer but he is no stranger to K Street lobbyists. His political fund-raising committee has received over $30,000 from Jack Abramoff's tribal clients. And back in 1995 Boehner apologized for distributing campaign checks from the tobacco lobby on the House floor. [Rep.] Rahm Emanuel [D-IL], who runs the Democratic House Campaign Committee says Boehner's election today is just more of the same. Quote, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

Once, in an episode he now says he regrets, Mr. Boehner was seen on the House floor passing out checks from the tobacco industry to his colleagues. More recently, he has been cool to efforts to tighten restrictions on lobbyists, but he did back a rules change that passed on Wednesday, barring former members who are lobbyists from using the House gym.

Elected in 1990, when Democrats had a stranglehold on the House, Boehner rose to fame assailing the excesses of the majority party as reports surfaced of bounced checks at the House bank. He was a member of the "Gang of Seven," the group of upstart Republicans who challenged the status quo.

But once in power after the 1994 elections, similar GOP foibles were on display. Boehner was forced to apologize in the mid-1990s for distributing checks from tobacco companies to his colleagues on the House floor.

In 1995, the Republican rank-and-file voted him chairman of the House Republican Conference, the No. 4 position in the leadership. Boehner used that position to craft the GOP message and improve GOP ties to businesses and lobbyists. He often held weekly meetings with lobbyists at the Capitol.

Posted In
Government, Ethics
Network/Outlet
The New York Times, ABC, Associated Press
Show/Publication
ABC World News Tonight
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