Caught in the House banking scandal, Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton) admitted Thursday that 27 bad checks were written on his congressional bank account but said that he was unaware of the problem until he saw an Ethics Committee report Wednesday.
The bounced checks totaled $6,553 and were written over a 32-month period ending last August. Dannemeyer said he was never notified that his congressional account was in arrears and his periodic bank statement made no mention that any checks had bounced.
"I never knowingly wrote, or would ever write, checks on an account with an insufficient balance," said Dannemeyer, who is opposing Sen. John Seymour in the Republican primary for the two-year Senate seat. "The House bank's bizarre accounting system has apparently tripped up many in the same category."
Dannemeyer, who was campaigning in California, said he supports the House call to identify its members who had written bad checks. However, he was expected to miss the crucial votes over whether to release some or all of the controversial bank statements. Nevertheless, he said he volunteered to pay a $15 penalty for each bad check on his account and would therefore send a check for $405 to the House bank.
Paul Mero, an aide to Dannemeyer, said the bad checks were unwittingly written by the congressman's wife to pay for domestic expenses at their home in Washington.
"He's a wealthy guy; it's not like he needs the extra money," Mero said. "It's just one of those things."
However, Jeff Weir, a spokesman for Seymour, said: "This is a bad moment for Dannemeyer because it puts him in the awkward light of his rhetoric not matching his personal behavior. It reinforces the image that the House takes care of itself and . . . not the American people."
Among Orange County's other congressmen, Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) and Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) both acknowledged that they had one check each that was accidentally overdrawn on their accounts.
Rohrabacher's office said the congressman was uncertain if he might have any additional bad checks on his record because he has not received all the transaction information for his own account. He said in a statement, however: "I am confident I will be seen as having minimal problems with the House bank."
Dornan predicted Thursday that the ramifications of the banking scandal would last for several years and that the scandal would have a dramatic effect on campaigns nationwide this year. He told his House colleagues that it is "a cancer on the Congress, and we must cut it out."
Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) said Thursday that he rarely used his congressional account and that it did not have any overdrawn checks. Rep. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside), who represents South County, was not available for comment Thursday.
Dannemeyer's disclosure brought the House banking scandal into California's U.S. Senate race. Another candidate, Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae), admitted writing 87 bad checks.
The announcement was particularly painful for Boxer, who hours earlier had refused in an interview to discuss her bank statements, saying she strongly believed in her right to privacy and planned to vote early today against the full disclosure of all House accounts.
But Boxer, who is running for the six-year Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Alan Cranston, said she changed her mind after counting the number of bad checks at her Washington apartment Thursday afternoon.
"I laid out the checks. Boy, I'll tell you, it is a miserable feeling," Boxer said. "I feel very terrible about this. I'm very embarrassed. . . . I have myself to blame."
The two other House members vying for Senate seats, Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Stanford) and Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica), released documents indicating they had not bounced a single check.
"I think people are entitled to know the full story and make their judgments themselves," Campbell said. "The credibility of the institution is at stake here."
Campbell, Levine and Boxer each voted early Friday in favor of revealing the overdraft records of all lawmakers.
So far, at least 10 California House members have admitted kiting checks, including Rep. Duncan L. Hunter (R-Coronado), who said that in the last three years his account lacked funds to cover at least 160 checks.
Hunter is unrepentant, insisting that, in effect, he had paid for overdraft protection at the House bank by putting $147 per month from his paycheck into a scholarship fund for needy students.
Hunter said he averaged three to five overdrafts a month at the House bank and had a similar overdraft rate for his personal account at the Bank of Coronado. He said he would never deal with a bank that does not protect against overdrafts.
"I won't apologize for it," Hunter said.
Others are not so willing to excuse the practice.
"This has the look and smell of a full-fledged scandal," said California Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, a Democrat who is running for the six-year Senate seat occupied by Democrat Alan Cranston. "It's a perfect example of why most Americans think Congress is out of touch."
Boxer, who declined to give the total value of the overdrafts she had written, also said she would pay a $15-per-check fee to the House.
Earlier Thursday, Boxer had said she had no plans to reveal her bank statements. She said she intended to vote to disclose only the top 24 abusers in the House who were found by the Ethics Committee to have had serious problems.
Bank officials previously assured her that she did not have a problem account, Boxer said. She added that her stand against the disclosure of lawmakers' banking records was consistent with her position on other privacy issues, including abortion rights.
Boxer said that not one California voter had inquired about the bank scandal during a string of seven appearances last weekend.
"I don't think they are really interested," Boxer said. "I think they are interested in real issues."
But after admitting to writing 87 bad checks over a 39-month period, she said she expected that the overdrafts would hurt her Senate campaign.
"I think it is a negative for me," Boxer said. "It is a wart. . . . I don't think it's devastating. No, when I think about some of the things politicians have been able to stand up to and win elections after, I think this pales by comparison."
McCarthy said California voters "certainly care about the issue. I think what they expect is anyone who serves in Congress will speak up against each of these things."
Boxer's other primary opponent, Levine, said he did not issue any overdrafts in large part because he did not use the House bank. Instead, he had his paycheck deposited in a private bank.
Levine, who has missed numerous votes in Congress while focusing on his Senate bid, jumped on an airplane in Los Angeles at noon Thursday once he learned the vote was rescheduled from Friday to Thursday night.
"This is one vote he wouldn't miss, come hell or high water," said Levine spokeswoman Hope Warschaw. Boxer and Campbell were already in Washington for the vote.
Other California members who have admitted to bouncing checks are Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Colton), Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), Rep. Richard H. Lehman (D-Sanger), Rep. Matthew G. Martinez (D-Monterey Park) and Rep. Pete Stark (D-Oakland).
Other members could not be certain how many checks they may have bounced because of the "chaotic way" the bank operated, said Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Carmel Valley). Panetta said Thursday that he intends to release his bank statements once he receives them.
"Ultimately, it is going to be up to each member's constituents to decide whether he or she abused the system," Panetta said. "I trust the public to make that distinction, and they ought to have that opportunity."