Coverups Lie Behind Hastert’s Curtain

Foley Scandal Exposes Ethical Problems

Scott Lilly examines links between the House Speaker's staff and a string of cover-ups.

Just as Toto pulled the curtain back on the Wizard of Oz, the Foley scandal has uncovered some disturbing facts about the speakership of Dennis Hastert (R-IL). From some perspectives, the Speaker himself does not even appear behind the curtain labeled “Speaker’s Office,” yet it is clear that a small, closely knit group of his assistants are frenetically manipulating the levers of power and, most disturbingly, appear to be doing so without sound judgment or regard for the institution they control.

Their failure to recognize that decisive action was required in response to former Florida Republican congressman Mark Foley’s persistent contacts with congressional pages is not even the latest example of their lack of judgment, regard for the institution, or worse. Congressional Quarterly reported late last week that an investigation into “bid rigging and kickbacks from contractors” to a contract officer managing large scale security upgrades in the Capitol was deliberately blocked by one of the same individuals on the Speaker’s staff prominently involved in the page controversy.

According to CQ, the contract officer was alleged to have received “Redskins tickets, golf outings, a set of golf clubs and meals” in return for directing federal funds to a particular contractor. According to CQ, the Speaker’s chief counsel demanded that the investigation be terminated and when it continued, instructed those with knowledge of the contract not to speak with investigators.

This story is so outrageous that skeptics are likely to disregard it. In fact, it is quite possible that the CQ story might never have made it into print had the Foley episode not added credence to the possibility that senior staff to the Speaker were capable of such blatant misconduct. But not only was it printed—it was printed by a publication generally sympathetic to Congress and long known for responsible, non-partisan coverage of the institution.

The only response from the Speaker’s office and the House Appropriations Committee was that the investigation had not technically been stopped and that the disclosure was the result of “sour grapes” on the part of investigators relating to a recent dispute over renewal of the committee’s investigative contracts. Specifically, the response did not deny allegations that the Speaker’s office had interfered and successfully blocked further progress in determining if the contract officer was receiving kickbacks.

The response—that the committee might reverse itself at some future point and reemploy investigators to seek to determine the validity of these allegations—was weak and silly. The attempt to impugn the sources of the story for “sour grapes” is just flat wrong. Ronald Garant (the investigator who was the named source for the CQ story) discontinued his contracting work with the committee more than ten months ago and is in no way affected by the more recent controversy with respect to the renewal of investigative contracts.

These two disturbing instances of what can charitably be called bad judgment are not the only instances of the Speaker’s office demanding a cover up when they should have been demanding accountability. Another example is the Capitol Visitor’s Center, which may be recorded as one of the most mismanaged and overpriced public works projects of all time.

The massive excavation on the East Lawn of the Capitol was originally intended to allow visitors to be screened for security purposes and and to provide them with some historical background about the building prior to entering. That project, originally estimated to cost $95 million, has now soared to almost $600 million. When the Speakers Office was told that the Government Accountability Office had determined that the Architect of the Capitol had neither the management capability nor the accounting systems to handle the project, the counsel to the Speaker–one of the same staffers who is implicated in the page controversy and the contract fraud cover up asked, “who the hell asked GAO to look at this?”

When Republican Congressman Jack Kingston of Georgia insisted that he would not be exercising due diligence as Chairman of the Legislative Branch subcommittee on Appropriations if he did not conduct oversight hearings on the mismanagement of the Center, the Speaker’s office demanded that their newly hand picked chairman of the Appropriations Committee eliminate Kingston’s subcommittee and relieve him of his due diligence obligations. Years behind schedule and a half a billion over budget, the Center truly deserves its popular label as “Hastert’s Hole.”

Perhaps the greatest attempted coverup by Hastert and his staff involved blocking the another Republican chairman, Joel Hefley (R-CO) from exercising institutional responsibility. As the damage surrounding the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal was exploding onto the front pages of national newspapers, the same crew who blocked oversight of the Visitors Center investigations into contracting kickbacks and the House page scandal were plotting to protect their members from the fallout of Abramoff’s extensive web of corruption. So, they removed Hefley not only as chair of the House ethics committee but also as a member of the committee itself.

In addition, two other Republicans viewed as unreliable in placing partisan allegiance above institutional or public responsibility were removed. Hefley was replaced by Doc Hastings (R-WA), the top contender for the chairmanship of the Rules Committee following the term limited chairmanship of David Drier (R-CA). Clearly, Hastings ascent to the Rules Committee chairmanship now depends on how closely he walks the party line on the less sought-after ethics committee.

Finally, the House leadership circled the wagons on the ethics committee, changing the rules to block any investigation unless there was at least some Republican support. With supporters of enforcement gone, Speaker Hastert sent a clear signal to his conference—whatever ethical misdeeds members commit, they shouldn’t expect any problems from the House ethics committee. Ironically, the toothless tiger Speaker Hastert created is now the forum before which he and his staff are being asked to testify.

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Scott Lilly

Senior Fellow