Congress takes a crack at corruption

When it’s hard to convict a congressman who accepts a briefcase full of $100 bills from undercover FBI agents in a hotel lobby and then bundles them in tinfoil packets and stuffs $90,000 worth of them into his freezer, you know there’s just something plain broken about the laws governing political corruption in this country.

You know it. I know it. And Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter knows it.

Good news is that so do senators Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and John Cornyn, R-Texas. They reintroduced a well-designed, anti-corruption bill in January called the Public Corruption Prosecution Improvements Act, which is being heard before the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday in D.C. The act would significantly expand funding for investigations and fill in the thousand-and-one loopholes that riddle existing laws.

The bill was knocked down last year but Leahy believes that the corruption scandals plaguing lawmakers on both sides of the aisle this year may provide a rare opening. There’s a chance he says that it won’t be seen as a partisan attack. The need for the bill is clear.

Leahy introduced it to lawmakers with this description:

The bill provides significant and much-needed additional funding for public corruption enforcement. Since September 11, 2001, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) resources have been shifted away from the pursuit of white-collar crime to counterterrorism. Director Mueller has said that public corruption is among the FBI’s top investigative priorities, but a September 2005 report by the Department of Justice Inspector General found that, from 2000 to 2004, there was an overall reduction in public corruption matters handled by the FBI. More recently, a study by the research group Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse found that the prosecution of all kinds of white-collar crimes is down 27 percent since 2000, and official corruption cases have dropped in the same period by 14 percent. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2007 that the investigation of an elected Federal official stalled for six months because the investigating U.S. Attorney’s Office could not afford to replace the prosecutor who had previously handled the case. We must reverse this trend and make sure that law enforcement has the tools and the resources it needs to confront these serious and corrosive crimes.

The National Journal posted a short, sharp piece Monday on the series of court cases that undercut both investigators and prosecutors even as the vast Jack Abramoff lobbying scandals were breaking.

The webcast hearing on Leahy and Cornyn’s Public Corruption Prosecution Improvements Act begins Thursday at 10 a.m. If you’re in Washington, get there; it’s in Dirksen Office Building 226.