No ethics legislation on horizon

Times Staff Writer

Congress has been awash in corruption scandals, the latest being the indictment of long-serving Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, but prospects for legislation to make questionable practices like Stevens’ alleged acceptance of gifts illegal in their own right appear grim.

A year after a bipartisan group of senators proposed giving the Justice Department important new clout in pursuing official misconduct, the Public Corruption Prosecution Improvements Act is apparently blocked in Congress.

The legislation is aimed at stanching the stream of perks that lobbyists and companies give to members of Congress that fall short of outright bribes by making it a felony for lawmakers to accept gifts valued above those permitted by Senate rules and that are given to them because of their official status and access to power.


It would appear to cover the sort of gifts that Stevens stands accused of getting from a powerful oil industry figure in Alaska -- more than $250,000 in improvements to his home near Anchorage and gifts including a Viking gas grill and a Land Rover, according to an indictment handed down Tuesday by a federal grand jury in Washington.

Stevens is scheduled to make his first appearance in the case today in federal court in Washington.

Supporters said the legislation might also cover mortgage breaks that some lawmakers and administration figures reportedly received recently from companies linked to the subprime mortgage debacle.

“We want public servants to meet with their constituents. I don’t think we want them accepting tickets to the Super Bowl,” said George D. Brown, a former federal prosecutor and now a professor at Boston College’s law school, describing the intent of the legislation.

Supporters, including the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, believe the bill would fill an important gap in federal law in cases in which bribery is not an issue and would show that Congress wants to hold itself to the highest ethical standards. Its lead sponsors are Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas). The Justice Department strongly supports the bill.

Critics say the department already has enough powerful legal tools to pursue the corrupt, and they fear that the legislation is written so broadly that it would criminalize receipt of token gifts, such as personalized jerseys that championship sports teams always seem to be handing their chosen representatives.

Those with concerns include the ranking Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

“This opens a wide, wide door,” Specter said during committee debate on the bill last year. He said he was concerned about the already “awesome power” of the Justice Department to go after political figures and others.

“There are a lot of people with big bull’s-eyes on their backs,” he said. “This bill, if enacted, would enlarge the bull’s-eye substantially.”

Congress approved new ethics rules last year that imposed an outright ban on gifts and other perks given to members from registered lobbyists, but they do not have the weight of criminal law.

“The most serious corruption cannot be prevented only by changing our own rules,” Leahy said. “Bribery and extortion are committed by people bent on getting around the rules.”

Some legal experts said such a change in the law could be more symbolic than real, because prosecutors have already stretched other laws to make their cases. But they also said it could add an arrow in the quiver of the Justice Department.

“There is a big area of conduct that potentially is sort of sleazy or unethical but not criminal -- like a whole series of free dinners. You cannot link it to any particular act that the member of Congress did. But it just looks sleazy,” said Randall Eliason, a former federal corruption prosecutor.

Last year, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the legislation by voice vote, but the objections of Specter and others make it unlikely it will be considered by the full Senate before the end of the year. No lawmaker has offered comparable legislation in the House.

Stevens’ indictment shows the problems prosecutors have had in framing corruption cases in recent years.

Though the lawmaker was accused of taking action on behalf of the oil firm and its chief executive, prosecutors did not charge him with bribery. That indicates that they did not have enough evidence of a quid pro quo -- the legal term describing a gift and an official act as being linked -- to charge him with the more serious crime, former prosecutors say.

Instead, Stevens was charged with failing to report the gifts on his Senate financial disclosure forms from 2001 through 2006. But he was not charged with the act of accepting the gifts. Ethics advocates say taking the gifts should be illegal in their own right and that prosecutors should not have to resort to such indirect methods that could leave the charges open to challenge.

Though accepting gifts and other “gratuities” used to be widely considered illegal, the Supreme Court took the opposite view in a 1999 case involving Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. Espy was charged with illegally receiving thousands of dollars in tickets to the U.S. Open Tennis tournament and other perks from Sun-Diamond Growers of California, an agribusiness cooperative.

Justice Department prosecutors maintained that it was illegal for corporations and their lobbyists to give any substantial gifts or money to an official who had power over their industry. A federal jury convicted Espy.

The Supreme Court disagreed, however, ruling that the questionable gifts must be linked to an official act performed by the recipient.

Reform groups said the apprehension the bill causes among lawmakers is understandable. “It does strike at the very heart of how the system works,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-based nonprofit organization.