K Street corruption

Editorial Notebook

November 26, 2005|By KAREN HOSLER

Thousands of young people head to Capitol Hill each year hoping to launch their careers, and when Michael Scanlon arrived in the mid-1990s, he was fairly typical: talented, ambitious, not particularly ideological but drawn to power.

But Mr. Scanlon, now 35, apparently was missing something: a moral compass that might have helped him better navigate an environment that fostered personal corruption.

This boyishly handsome and charming flim-flam man from Kensington, Md., is now at the center of an epic scandal - complete with mobsters, murder, defrauded millions, and women scorned. Mr. Scanlon and his partner, Jack Abramoff, made a private mockery of the Indian tribes that were their clients and the Christian conservatives they duped to serve their purposes. Half a dozen lawmakers or more could be ensnared in the federal investigation.

Yet, while there's no sympathy for Mr. Scanlon among his former colleagues, they agree that the climate on Capitol Hill today is perfect for his sort of greedy predator.

Ironically, it's a lesson Republicans seem to have forgotten since those heady days of 1994 when they inherited control of Congress from the scandal-plagued Democrats.

Shortly after their takeover, Republicans installed reforms designed to minimize the power of individual lawmakers but they established party rule so strong Democrats were all but shut out.

Soon, the control of House and Senate and subsidiary agencies wasn't enough. Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican who was then House Majority Whip, launched the "K Street project" to strengthen ties between the GOP-led Congress and high-dollar lobbyists, many of whom ply their trade from plush offices on that downtown Washington thoroughfare. Access to key lawmakers was granted only to those lobbying firms and trade associations that put Republicans in the top jobs.

The implicit message of quid pro quo could hardly have been more brazen.

For Mr. DeLay, who could have cashed in and become a very wealthy man years ago, the goal has always been power. But for some of the young aides who attached themselves to his star, particularly Mr. Scanlon, the object was money - lots of it.

Team DeLay played the game ruthlessly, first pushing then Democratic President Bill Clinton to the brink of ouster by impeachment.

"You kick him until he passes out," Mr. Scanlon wrote at the time in an e-mail to a colleague that was published in the Clinton biography, "The Breach." "Then beat him over the head with a baseball bat - then roll him up in an old rug - and throw him off a cliff into the pound(ing) surf below!!!!!"

House Speaker Dennis Hastert later suspected Mr. Scanlon of working behind the scenes against him, and Mr. DeLay was obliged to let Mr. Scanlon go.

But that was only the beginning of a wild ride with Mr. Abramoff, another DeLay protM-igM-i, during which the two were paid more than $80 million between 2001 and 2004 by six American Indian tribes seeking federal help to protect or enhance their gambling revenues from casinos.

The tribes were pitted against each other and their money was used to finance lavish travel for Mr. DeLay and other lawmakers while tribal leaders were disparaged as "monkeys" and "morons" in e-mails between the lobbying partners.

"They preyed on our political insecurities, economic insecurities and insecurities about each other," Coushatta tribal chairman Kevin Sickey told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee this month.

Mr. Abramoff was indicted by a Florida grand jury last summer for wire fraud and conspiracy related to his attempts to buy a casino company after the former owner was killed in a gangland-style slaying.

Mr. Scanlon pleaded guilty this week to federal charges of conspiring to bribe public officials, and he was ordered to pay more than $19 million in restitution to defrauded tribes. In the corridors of the Capitol, it's widely believed that information against him came from former partners in his checkered love life.

When the name of the game is payback, anything goes.

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