ABC offered no evidence in suggesting Democrats engaging in corrupt practices they denounced

››› ››› RYAN CHIACHIERE

In an April 25 ABC News report titled "Politics As Usual; Democrats Just Like the Republicans," chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross reported that, although Democrats "criticiz[ed] the Republicans for turning Congress in to what [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi [D-CA] called an auction house for sale to the highest bidder" while in the minority, they are now "taking full advantage of the system that they called pay for play" in their fundraising from lobbyists and others. However, Pelosi's statement did not declare that Democrats would not do any fundraising if they became the majority party, and Ross, while discussing several fundraising events, provided no evidence that any of those events involved legal or ethical wrongdoing. By contrast, three Republican congressmen -- former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), Bob Ney (R-OH), and Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA) -- have been indicted, and two -- Ney and Cunningham -- pleaded guilty to offenses during the 109th Congress. The report aired on the webcast of ABC's World News.

Another version of the report aired the same day on ABC's World News with Charles Gibson, during which Ross also quoted Pelosi's January 2006 statement that "[t]he Republicans have turned Congress into an auction house, for sale to the highest bidder. You have to pay to play."

During the World News report, Ross asserted that "Congressman Charlie Rangel [D-NY] and Senator Max Baucus [D-MT], collected as much as $9,200 a person at a swanky gathering with New York's financial elite this February," but again offered no evidence of "pay for play." Following that report, Ross asserted, "The Democrats say they are working on a new comprehensive ethics and lobbying reform package that will be introduced in the next several weeks. But until that is passed, everything they're doing is legal under the current law. The Democrats are enjoying the privilege of power." In response, Gibson said, "The more things change, the more things stay the same."

However, in neither report did Ross offer any evidence that these fundraisers constituted legal or ethical wrongdoing by any Democratic congressmen. He asserted that "Speaker Pelosi, who called about Republicans auctioning off Congress, recently attended a swanky dinner, 28,000, as much as $28,000 a person to attend to have dinner with her and the top committee chairman from the Democratic Party who controlled the House," and added, "many say that is nothing short of pay for play."

Responding to Ross' assertion that Pelosi attended a fundraiser that cost "as much as $28,000 a person," Gibson asserted, "Up to 28,000 bucks to go to a party where she appears. Is that within the rules?" and added, "I thought there were limits in how much you're gonna give." In response, Ross suggested the Democrats had found a loophole to otherwise applicable limits by claiming, "They found a new way. Democrats have been very creative," and adding, "By having more than one member of Congress there, you can give to kind of a, a group of them." Ross continued:

For instance, Senator Max Baucus and Congressman Charlie Rangel, they control the two committees in the House and the Senate that set all tax policy. They formed their own little group and you can give as much as $9,200 a couple, and that's what happened recently in a New York and a Fifth Avenue apartment, 9,200 bucks for a couple, to have a couple of cocktails with Rangel and Baucus.

In fact, the fundraiser Pelosi attended was for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, as The Washington Post noted in a February 24 article. According to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the limit for donations to a national party committee is $28,500.

With respect to the Baucus-Rangel fundraiser, as the Post noted, and as Ross noted later on World News, the request was for up to $9,200 per person, not per couple. However, this was also within applicable limits and did not involve a loophole as Ross had suggested. According to the FEC, the contribution limit for a congressional candidate is $2,300, but, as the FEC notes, "the limit applies separately to each election," and "[p]rimaries, runoffs and general elections are considered separate elections." Therefore, an individual could give $4,600 to each candidate per cycle, and $9,200 to two candidates.

Moreover, as part of his case for claiming that "the game is the same," Ross offered the example of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), who raised funds by taking lobbyists to a Who concert in Washington, D.C. Ross noted that "nothing stopped him from buying the tickets himself and then selling them back to lobbyists at 10 times the going price." But, as Ross noted, Issa is a Republican, so he hardly represents an example of Democrats, now in the majority, engaging in the same conduct they condemned.

The World News report was promoted on Ross's ABC home page under the headline "Congressional Democrats Spell Reform: C-A-$-H."

From the April 25 edition of the ABC World News webcast:

CHARLES GIBSON (anchor): We stick with politics, but of a very different variety. When the Democrats took control on Capitol Hill in January, they were criticizing the Republicans for turning Congress in to what Nancy Pelosi called an auction house for sale to the highest bidder. And she introduced legislation, you may recall, that she promised would fundamentally change how the Democrats interacted with lobbyists. Three months later, how are Democrats interacting with lobbyists? Our chief investigative correspondent, Brian Ross, has been looking into that question. So how are they?

ROSS: Just as well as the Republicans did. They are now in power, and they are taking full advantage of the system that they called pay for play, which to get access to Congress, you have to pay a lot of money, make contributions, provide all kinds of things of value. Some small rules have changed, but essentially, the game is the same.

GIBSON: Examples?

ROSS: For example, Speaker Pelosi, who called about Republicans auctioning off Congress, recently attended a swanky dinner, $28,000 -- as much as $28,000 a person to attend to have dinner with her and the top committee chairman from the Democratic Party who control the House -- $28,000. Many say that is nothing short of pay for play.

GIBSON: Up to 28,000 bucks to go to a party where she appears. Is that within the rules? Can you get -- I thought there were limits in how much you can give.

ROSS: Well, there are limits. They found a new way. Democrats have been very creative. By having more than one member of Congress there, you can give to kind of a -- a group of them. For instance, Senator Max Baucus and Congressman Charlie Rangel, they control the two committees in the House and the Senate that set all tax policy. They formed their own little group, and you can give as much as $9,200 a couple, and that's what happened recently in a New York in a Fifth Avenue apartment -- 9,200 bucks for a couple, to have a couple of cocktails with Rangel and Baucus.

GIBSON: Now, you said there've been some small rules changes made. For instance, I thought you couldn't take the same kind of gifts from lobbyists that you used to be able to take.

ROSS: Exactly. Under the disgrace of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, they said you can no longer accept from a lobbyist free tickets, for instance, or for free trips. But they found a way around this. We were at a big concert for The Who in Washington, and in the skybox was a congressman, Republican Congressman Issa. He was there with lobbyists -- it was the same group. But what he did -- instead of receiving free tickets, he bought the tickets himself for about 125 bucks and then sold each one to the lobbyists for $1,500, made a nice profit, and still had a fun evening out.

GIBSON: Oh, wait a minute. He, he bought the tickets --

ROSS: He's like a scalper.

GIBSON: He bought it, he marked them up to 10 times the price --

ROSS: Right.

GIBSON: -- and then sold them to the lobbyists.

ROSS: Exactly. And they bought them, so it's the same thing. They're paying for the tickets.

GIBSON: So it's business as usual.

ROSS: Under a different set of rules, business as usual.

GIBSON: All right. Democrats, just like Republicans. Who knew? Brian Ross, our chief investigative correspondent.

From the April 25 edition of ABC's World News:

GIBSON: Next, we turn to politics and money. When Democrats seized control of Congress last year, they vowed to limit the influence of lobbyists and major donors and crack down on what they called the culture of corruption. Well, now the Democrats have settled in. Has anything changed? Our chief investigative correspondent, Brian Ross, went back on "The Money Trail" to find out.

ROSS: This was the scene last month at a private estate outside Washington -- luxury cars delivering guests who paid as much as $28,000 to have dinner with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders.

REPORTER: How much did you pay for this party?

INTERVIEWEE: $10,000.

ROSS: Speaker Pelosi was whisked in under heavy guard in the kind of scene only a few months ago she labeled corrupt.

PELOSI: The Republicans have turned Congress into an auction house, for sale to the highest bidder. You have to pay to play.

ROSS: Only now, it's the Democrats who get wined and dined, taking full advantage of the system.

TONY PODESTA (lobbyist, Democratic fundraiser): There's a, a cuisine and a place to greet your favorite politician in almost -- any hour of the day or night.

ROSS: The chairs of the powerful congressional committees that set taxes, Congressman Charlie Rangel and Senator Max Baucus, collected as much as $9,200 a person at a swanky gathering with New York's financial elite this February. Senator Baucus claimed not to know how much his guests had to pay.

BAUCUS: Gosh, I don't know.

REPORTER: You, you don't know?

BAUCUS: I don't know. I couldn't tell you.

ROSS: Campaign finance records made public this week tell the story. Democratic congressional campaign committees are raking in the cash, one and a half times as much as the Republicans in the first reporting period of the year.

ELLEN MILLER (executive director, Sunlight Foundation): Access is still for sale. There's no question about it.

ROSS: And the few changes that have been made haven't really made much of a difference. We found Republican Congressman Darrell Issa of California in a private skybox with lobbyists and other big donors at a recent Who concert in Washington. Under new House rules, the congressman could not accept a free ticket. But nothing stopped him from buying the tickets himself and then selling them back to lobbyists at 10 times the going price.

MILLER: It's just like the old days of Jack Abramoff, even though those days are what this Congress promised to clean up.

ROSS: The Democrats say they are working on a new comprehensive ethics and lobbying reform package that will be introduced in the next several weeks. But until that is passed, everything they're doing is legal under the current law. The Democrats are enjoying the privilege of power, Charlie.

GIBSON: For now. The more things change, the more things stay the same.

ROSS: That is exactly right.

GIBSON: Brian Ross on "The Money Trail."

Posted In
Government, Ethics
Network/Outlet
ABC
Person
Brian Ross, Charlie Gibson
Show/Publication
ABC World News Tonight
Stories/Interests
2008 Elections
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