The GOP's bad boys
By: John Bresnahan
April 27, 2014 12:06 PM EDT
The bad boys of the Republican Party are back, and it’s causing big problems for Speaker John Boehner.
Not since the days of the Jack Abramoff scandal a decade ago have so many House GOP lawmakers garnered this many scandalous headlines in such a short a period of time. And while it hasn’t altered the overall political landscape for House Republicans - they are still expected to pick up seats in November - it is causing some nervous moments inside GOP leadership.
On Monday, Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) will be hit with more than a dozen federal criminal charges related to his ownership of a health food restaurant in Manhattan, according to two sources close to the case. Grimm, a former undercover FBI agent, owned the restaurant after he left the bureau in 2006, up until he was elected to the House in 2010. The indictment will cover criminal actions allegedly taken by Grimm during that period, the sources said.
The charges against Grimm will include mail and wire fraud, filing false tax returns and health-care payments, hiring undocumented workers, obstruction of justice, and a slew of other criminal allegations, the sources added.
Grimm’s troubles are just the latest in a series of high-profile bad behavior in the House. Just before Congress left town for a two-week Easter recess, a video surfaced showing recently elected Rep. Vance McAllister (R-La.) in romantic embrace with a now-former aide — prompting calls by top Republicans in the state for him to resign. Earlier this year, Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.) pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor cocaine possession charge. He ultimately relinquished his seat.
Neither Boehner (R-Ohio) nor his top lieutenants have spoken to Grimm yet, according to senior aides, but the indictment will cause a sizable headache for the speaker and his leadership team.
If, as expected, the Grimm indictment covers just his restaurant-related activities, Boehner may be unable or unwilling - due to his own internal GOP politics - to call on Grimm to resign. Instead, Boehner would likely try to duck the issue and say it will be resolved between Grimm, his constituents, and the Justice Department.
Boehner will also point out that the indictment covers a period before Grimm became a member of Congress, meaning that it really isn’t his or the House’s business. No one in leadership is looking forward to answering questions on the matter.
“It’s a total mess,” said a House GOP leadership aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity. The filing deadline for New York has already closed, meaning Grimm will almost certainly be on the ballot this November and giving Democrats a great pick-up opportunity on Election Day.
“We were prepared to deal with the ‘He’s under investigation,’ we dealt with that last cycle,” the Republican aide noted. “But I don’t know how we deal with Grimm being indicted and just sitting there. It’s a nightmare.”
Federal prosecutors had been looking into Grimm’s fundraising during his 2010 campaign for Congress, including hundreds of thousands of dollars the New York Republican raked in from the followers of an obscure Israeli rabbi, but this indictment is not expected to include anything related to those donations. A superseding indictment covering that part of the Grimm probe is still possible, although it is not clear if that will happen, said a source familiar with the matter.
Ofer Biton, a Grimm business associate affiliated with the restaurant who also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Grimm’s 2010 campaign, recently pleaded guilty to a federal visa violation and is cooperating with prosecutors. Another Grimm fundraiser was recently arrested for allegedly using “straw donors” to funnel more than $10,000 in donations to the New York Republican’s campaign.
Grimm’s attorney has slammed the pending indictment, and Grimm’s friends and colleagues predict he will fight the charges in court and on the campaign stump.
“When the dust settles, he will be vindicated,” Grimm’s lawyer, William McGinley of the law firm Patton Boggs, said last week after news of the pending Grimm indictment surfaced. “Until then, he will continue to serve his constituents with the same dedication and tenacity that has characterized his lifetime of public service as a Member of Congress, Marine Corps combat veteran, and decorated FBI Special Agent.”
During the last five months, Boehner and his leadership team have moved cautiously when faced with high-profile scandals, as is Boehner’s way. Boehner doesn’t like appearing if he’s forced into action by Democrats or the press, but he also wants to show that he won’t tolerate unethical behavior. Boehner has had his own run-ins with ethics cases earlier in his career, both as a victim and defendant, and he watched how an earlier era of Republican rule ended in ethics probes and guilty pleas. He’s vowed not to let it happen on his watch.
Radel resigned after being nudged privately by Boehner to step down following Radel’s guilty plea on the cocaine possession charge in a Washington, D.C., court, according to GOP insiders. No member of Congress had ever before been arrested on a cocaine-related drug charge, and the episode stunned Capitol Hill and lawmakers in both parties.
Radel initially tried to stay in office, and he attended drug rehab and hired a “crisis communications” consultant to help do damage control. But with Boehner and his own Florida colleagues offering no political cover, Radel - who was elected in November 2012 - realized he had to go.
For his part, McAllister was caught on a videotape from his own congressional office in a romantic embrace shortly before Christmas with a now former aide.
The McAllister tape went public on April 7 in a local Louisiana paper, and McAllister was quickly dubbed the “kissing congressman.”
McAllister did not return the Congress the week before the Easter recess, although he had brief conversations with Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) about the incident.
McAllister, who ran as a Christian conservative in the Nov. 2013 special election to replace former Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-La.), has also issued a public apology for his extramarital relationship, yet otherwise shows no sign of leaving office, despite leadership’s fervent wish that he do so.
“I don’t know how this is all going to play out. [McAllister] is going to have to resign at some point. I think that’s how all this ends,” said another GOP leadership aide.
Like the Radel seat, McAllister is in a solidly Republican district, one that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney carried by more than 20 points in 2012, so there is no danger that Democrats will take the seat.
McAllister’s biggest immediate problem beyond the obvious political and personal fallout is the House Ethics Committee, which can investigate the incident on its own authority if it chooses to do so. There is no sign that the secretive panel has begun yet, but with leadership or his fellow Republicans unlikely to give him any support, the Ethics Committee would be free to go hard on McAllister if it chose to do so.
With the overall political landscape looking good for Republicans, and the potential losses could be limited to one seat, Democrats are pounding Boehner and other GOP leaders for running a “House of Scandal,” repeating a line they employed during the 2012 cycle with only limited success. Democrats portray Boehner and his leadership team as more interested in avoiding political fallout - ignoring and running out the legislative clock on popular issues like immigration reform and a minimum-wage increase - than in reaching bipartisan deals.
“Republican leadership promised zero tolerance but has taken zero action as their Republican Congress has become a ‘House of Scandal,’’ said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) “By continuing to support members like Michael Grimm, House Republicans are sending a clear message to voters that they want business as usual in Washington.”
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) used the “culture of corruption” attack line very effectively in the run-up to the 2006 elections, with former Reps. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), as the targets of her political attacks. The Pelosi line struck a chord with voters, and the California Democrat’s pledge to “drain the swamp” of Capitol Hill corruption was a popular one.
When Boehner took over as speaker in 2010, he instituted a “zero tolerance” policy for lawmakers caught up in ethical scandals. While there have been instances of improper behavior like Radel and now Grimm, there have been no wider corruption waves during his tenure in the speaker’s chair. He had forced members to step down when he thought it necessary, such as Radel or former Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), who was caught having an affair with a staffer in 2010.
Boehner also instituted a ban on spending earmarks, which angered House appropriators but has helped cut down on a practice that became heavily abused in previous Congresses.
Boehner has been far more cautious when dealing with members like Reps. Don Young (R-Alaska) and Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) when those lawmakers found themselves under federal criminal investigation. Both lawmakers faced a wave of negative press stories, but the criminal investigations by DOJ ended without charges and they have moved on with their political careers.