Lamentable Ethics in Congress? It’s as Old as the Hill

Posted January 20, 2005 at 3:19pm

The debate earlier this month over changing the House ethics process may have seemed like a firefight, but it can’t hold a candle to some prior ethical escapades by Members of Congress.

With ethics on the minds of Capitol Hill denizens, Roll Call thought it fitting to review some of the more memorable moments in which Members have behaved, well, badly. What follows is a recap, though not an exhaustive one, of cases in which a House Member was formally reprimanded in some manner or was pursued by federal authorities.

From duels to sexual picadilloes, the misconduct summarized here runs from tragic to tawdry. Each case in this compendium of poor behavior is a reminder that politicians, perhaps more than most, need policing. As the House Ethics Manual points out, in Federalist 51 James Madison stated, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

Take the case of Republican Rep. Matthew Lyon, a not-so-gentle man from Vermont, who in 1798 became the first Member subjected to disciplinary action, for spitting on Rep. Roger Griswold (Conn.), a member of the Federalist Party, during the counting of ballots in a floor vote. A clear-cut violation — or was Griswold actually to blame?

A House investigation into the matter revealed that on Jan. 30, 1798, Griswold taunted Lyon with “an alleged occurrence in his army record, whereupon the latter spat in his opponent’s face,” according to Hinds’ Precedents of the House of Representatives.

If only it had stopped there.

Lyon, an Irish immigrant and Revolutionary War hero in his pre-Congress days, sent a letter of apology to Griswold on Feb. 1, and on Feb. 12 Lyon’s colleagues rejected an expulsion resolution recommended by the House Committee on Privileges.

But as the House convened on Feb. 15, tempers flared again. Following the morning prayers, Griswold came upon a seated Lyon, assaulting him with his “stout cane,” according to Hinds.

Lyon decided to punish his adversary with a pair of steel fireplace tongs. One week later, the full House rejected a measure to censure both lawmakers, but not before both Members took a “nonviolence” pledge before the Speaker.

It’s a pledge that might have been worth reviving in later years, given the following roll call of ethical blowups.


Rep. William Graves (Ky.), a member of the Whig Party, shot and killed freshman Rep. Jonathan Cilley (D-Maine) during a duel fought with rifles on the border between Maryland and the District of Columbia. The dispute leading to the fatal encounter stemmed from Cilley’s reference on the House floor to an alleged bribe to a New York newspaper publisher. But most believe that the quarrel was little more than an excuse to kill a 30-year-old abolitionist who deplored slavery.

A select investigatory committee adopted an expulsion resolution for Graves and a censure resolution for Reps. Henry Wise (Whig-Va.) and George Jones (D-Tenn.), who had acted as “seconds” in the duel. The full House declined to act on the recommendations, however.


Arguably the most infamous physical altercation in Congressional history occurred when Rep. Preston Brooks (D-S.C.) violently whacked Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass.) with his cane.

Brooks had been upset over a speech in which Sumner criticized Southerners who supported slavery in Kansas. Sumner was sidelined for more than three years while he recovered from the attack, and while an expulsion vote against Brooks failed in the House, the South Carolinian resigned anyway.


Another caning incident occurred just 10 years later when Rep. Lovell Rousseau (Ky.), who belonged to the Unconditional Unionist Party, assaulted Rep. Josiah Grinnell (R-Iowa) outside the Capitol with a cane for allegedly insulting him during a debate. Rousseau resigned after a special committee recommended his expulsion, though he was later re-elected.


Three Republicans from the South were swept up in a military appointment scandal after an investigation by the Committee on Military Affairs concluded they had sold appointments to West Point and the Naval Academy. All three were censured by the House and two — Reps. Benjamin Whittemore (R-S.C.) and John Deweese (R-N.C.) — resigned prior to being condemned by the House for making appointments that were “influenced by pecuniary considerations.”

For his part, Rep. Roderick Butler (R-Tenn.) was condemned for the “unauthorized and dangerous practice” of nominating to West Point a young man who did not live in his district and whose father had given Butler money. He did not resign, but four years later he lost his bid for re-election.


Long before Enron there was the Credit Mobilier — a scandal which gave a black eye to railroad tycoons and which also took down several Gilded Age politicians who were enriching themselves with lucrative railroad stocks while handing out the very contracts to build the railroad.

After the New York Sun broke a story about the corruption shortly before the 1872 elections, Massachusetts Rep. Oakes Ames (R) and Rep. James Brooks (D-N.Y.) were each censured for their roles in the affair. Ames was accused of selling $33 million in shares to other Members and executive branch officials at an undervalued price, in an attempt to influence their votes on railroad legislation.


Rep. John Dowdy (D-Texas) was convicted on eight counts of conspiracy, bribery and perjury for accepting a $25,000 bribe to hinder a federal investigation of a Maryland construction company. He retired from Congress in January 1972 and served a six-month prison sentence.


Rep. Robert Sikes (D-Fla.), once the powerful chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on military construction, lost his perch when he was reprimanded by the House for violating conflict-of-interest rules. Sikes’ indiscretions ranged from failure to disclose stock holdings in certain defense contractors to investing in a bank that he’d helped establish at a naval base in his district. The 16-term Member also was found to have sponsored legislation allowing for the development of beachfront property in which he had an investment.

The same year, Rep. Wayne Hays (D-Ohio) got in a load of trouble after The Washington Post reported that he had placed his mistress on the public payroll, even though she later admitted she couldn’t type. Hays resigned before the House could hold hearings on the matter.

Rep. Andrew Hinshaw (R-Calif.) spent a year in jail after being convicted in 1976 of accepting bribes when he was a county tax assessor. He lost in a primary and resigned at the end of his term.


Rep. Charles Diggs (D-Mich.) was convicted of 11 counts of mail fraud and 18 counts of false statements for operating a payroll kickback scheme in his Congressional office. He served seven months of a three-year prison term. He was re-elected after his conviction in 1978 but resigned in 1980 after losing his criminal appeal.


Rep. Michael Myers (D-Pa.) and four other House Members were convicted in the bribery scandal known as Abscam, in which FBI agents impersonated Arab businessmen and offered the lawmakers money in return for official favors.

Myers was expelled from the House and served approximately 20 months in prison. Also convicted were Reps. John Murphy (D-N.Y.), Frank Thompson (D-N.J.), John Jenrette (D-S.C.) and Raymond Lederer (D-Pa.), along with Sen. Harrison Williams (D-N.J.), who resigned from office during Senate proceedings on an expulsion motion following his conviction.

Thompson and Murphy were sentenced to three years; Jenrette, two years; and Lederer, one year. (In a unrelated event, Jenrette and his, wife, Rita became famous, or infamous, for having sex on the steps of the Capitol during a break in a nighttime session.)


Rep. Gerry Studds (D-Mass.) was censured after admitting to a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old male House page that had occurred 10 years earlier. The revelations grew out of the “Sex and Drugs Investigation” — a special investigation into allegations of improper sexual conduct, illicit drug use and preferential treatment of House employees.

Though Studds defended the relationship as consensual, the Democratic Caucus stripped him of his chairmanship on the merchant marine and fisheries subcommittee. Nevertheless, Studds managed to win re-election and eventually became chairman of the committee in 1993.

The same special counsel’s investigation also ensnared Rep. Daniel Crane (R-Ill.), who was discovered to have been sexually involved with a 17-year-old female House page in 1980. He apologized for his behavior, but lost his seat in the 1984 election.


Rep. George Hansen (R-Idaho) was the first Member convicted under the Ethics in Government Act for failing to fully disclose his finances. He was sentenced to five months in prison and fined $40,000 for not reporting more than $200,000 in loans and income. After being reprimanded by the House in July, he was defeated for re-election in November and later went to prison.


Rep. Dan Daniel (D-Va.) was found to have violated House rules on gifts and disclosures by accepting free flights from the Beech Aircraft Co. over an eight-year period and by submitting “erroneous” vouchers to the government for reimbursement of automobile mileage. Daniel subsequently reimbursed the company for the flights and the government for the vouchers and filed an amended financial disclosure statement. He died in January 1988, four days after announcing his retirement.


Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.) was convicted on Sept. 22, 1987, of federal charges of accepting illegal gratuities, conspiracy, illegal trafficking, and obstruction of justice that grew out of his efforts to aid the Coastal Drydock Co. He received a two-and-a-half-year sentence.

While the House ethics committee voted 12-0 to expel Biaggi from Congress, that effort slowed as Biaggi was tried on separate corruption charges that arose from his ties to the now-defunct Bronx defense contractor Wedtech. In that case, he was convicted of racketeering, conspiracy, extortion and bribery for allegedly demanding cash and stock from the company in exchange for defense contracts. He resigned from Congress the next day and was sentenced to eight years in prison. He was released in 1991 due to failing health.

Another Member to resign in 1987 was Rep. Bill Boner (D-Tenn.), following an ethics committee investigation of improper personal use of campaign funds, improper use of his chairmanship of the Travel and Tourism Caucus for personal purposes, and alleged bribery through his wife.

While the ethics committee found several violations of House rules, a Justice Department inquiry into the matter was inconclusive. Boner — who earned perhaps more attention for his extramarital affair with a lounge singer whom he married and divorced — proved himself a political survivor. He was later elected mayor of Nashville and a member of the Tennessee Legislature.

Rep. Austin Murphy (D-Pa.) was reprimanded by the House in 1987 for allowing his former law firm to use his Congressional office resources, for directing another Member to cast votes for him when he was not in the House chamber, and for having a no-show employee. He was re-elected and served until retiring at the end of the 103rd Congress.

In a 12-0 vote, the ethics committee rebuked Rep. Richard Stallings (D-Idaho) the same year for improperly borrowing $5,800 from his campaign and using most of it to buy a car.


Following a two-year investigation, the House ethics committee issued a “letter of reproval” to Rep. Charles Rose (D-N.C.) for using more than $60,000 in campaign funds for personal purposes in a series of transactions over a seven-year period which he improperly reported as loans to himself.

In 1989, the Justice Department sued Rose, seeking a $30,000 penalty for violations of the Ethics in Government Act and an amendment to his financial disclosure forms. In 1994, Rose paid a $12,500 civil fine.

Del. Fofo Sunia (D-American Samoa) and his administrative assistant each pleaded guilty to defrauding the government of $130,000 in a “ghost” employee case. The ethics committee had launched an investigation of the delegate in October 1987, but the Delegate’s September 1988 resignation ended the case. He served a prison term of five months.

Rep. Patrick Swindall (R-Ga.) was indicted for perjury for lying to a federal grand jury investigating a drug-money laundering operation. A jury didn’t buy Swindall’s defense that he was unaware that he was soliciting drug money when he attempted to get a loan from a drug-money launderer and an undercover law enforcement agent. He was convicted on nine counts, sentenced to one year in prison, paid a $30,000 fine and was disbarred by the Georgia Bar Association.


Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) was investigated by the ethics committee in 1988 and 1989 on a list of charges submitted by Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) that included intervening with regulators on behalf of contributors with interests in savings and loans, circumventing outside income limits in a book deal, improperly directing an aide to help write a book for him and accepting gifts from a business partner who allegedly benefited from federal appropriations backed by Wright.

The Speaker was charged by the House ethics committee with 69 rules violations in March, and by mid-May it had become clear that censure was inevitable if he remained in office.

On May 31, Wright announced he would step down as Speaker and resign from office — the only Speaker in history to have been toppled on ethical grounds alone. He now teaches and lectures in Texas and last month underwent what was termed successful surgery for a cancerous lesion in his mouth.

Following a preliminary inquiry by the ethics committee, Rep. Jim Bates (D-Calif.) admitted to sexual harassment of female staffers and of having Congressional aides conduct campaign business in his House office. Mildly rebuked by the panel in a letter of reproval, Bates apologized for his behavior and underwent sensitivity training, but lost his 1990 re-election anyway. The case prompted the House to set up an Office of Fair Employment Practices.


The House ethics committee issued a public report disapproving of the conduct Rep. Gus Savage (D-Ill.). It concluded that the Congressman had made improper sexual advances toward a female Peace Corps volunteer while on a trip to Zaire in 1989. Savage apologized to the woman, albeit grudgingly, but two years later lost his primary to Mel Reynolds, who would face a sex scandal himself just a few years later.

Another high-profile sex scandal from 1990 involved openly gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who was reprimanded by a 408-to-18 vote of the full House on July 26, 1990, for fixing the parking tickets of male prostitute Steven Gobie and making misleading statements in a memo to parole officers written on Gobie’s behalf.

The House rejected an expulsion resolution and a motion to censure Frank, and the ethics committee failed to find evidence that Frank knew Gobie was running a prostitution ring from the lawmaker’s home. Frank was re-elected with two-thirds of the vote four months later and continues to serve today.

The third major sex scandal of 1990 involved Rep. Donald “Buz” Lukens (R-Ohio). Lukens resigned in late 1990 after being convicted of contributing to the unruliness of a minor after he had sex with a young girl in Columbus, Ohio. He later served nine days in jail.


Following a General Accounting Office report concluding that numerous Members had been routinely overdrawing their House Bank accounts, the ethics committee launched an investigation that resulted in the closing of the House Bank and the convictions of three Members and one Delegate: Reps. Albert Bustamante (D-Texas), Carl Perkins (D-Ky.) and Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio) and D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy (D). Many other Members lost their re-election battles after the ethics committee released a list of lawmakers who had “abused” their banking privileges.


Former Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) was forced to lay down his gavel after being indicted for mail fraud, wire fraud, witness tampering, concealing a material fact, making a false statement, embezzlement and conspiracy. Among his misdeeds were using taxpayer money to buy fancy gifts for his friends and trading taxpayer-provided postage stamps for cash to hire ghost employees to do his personal chores. He lost re-election to a Republican political unknown in 1994 and later served 15 months in a minimum-security prison. More recently, he has resurfaced as a sometime media personality and received a pardon from President Bill Clinton in 2000.


Rep. Mel Reynolds (D-Ill.) resigned from office in disgrace on Sept. 1, 1995, after a conviction for having sex with a 16-year-old campaign worker. He was sentenced to five years in prison and, in 1997, was also convicted of bank fraud and other violations — although he has disputed many of the prosecutors’ claims. In early 2001, he was pardoned by Clinton. He resurfaced last year when he made an unsuccessful bid to unseat Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.).

On Dec. 12, 1995, House Members filed an expulsion resolution against Rep. Walter Tucker (D-Calif.) — but Tucker beat his colleagues to the punch by resigning from office that day. Tucker was convicted just four days earlier on seven counts of extortion and two counts of tax evasion related to his extortion of $30,000 from a local businessman while he was mayor of Compton, Calif.


Rep. Joseph Kolter (D-Pa.) was sentenced to six months in prison after pleading guilty to conspiring to defraud taxpayers in a stamps-for-cash scheme. Kolter’s crimes were uncovered during a U.S. Attorney investigation into embezzlement at the House Post Office.

The scandal resulted in several convictions, including then-House Postmaster Robert Rota, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor conspiracy to embezzle and to aiding and abetting embezzlement. Kolter’s conviction came four years after his defeat. He eventually admitted to trading $10,000 in stamps for cash and was fined $20,000 in addition to having to reimburse the government.


Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was slapped with a $300,000 penalty after acknowledging he had misled the ethics committee during its investigation into Gingrich’s use of tax-exempt entities to support a college course he taught.

Gingrich acknowledged that he had failed to secure adequate legal advice to make sure that his activities complied with the Internal Revenue Code and admitted to supplying the ethics committee with inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable information during its investigation into the matter — though he blamed the omissions on his lawyer. The fine was levied to repay the ethics committee for costs it had incurred in investigating his misleading statements.

Gingrich managed to survive several subsequent ethics complaints relatively unscathed, but he fell out of favor with conservatives in his caucus after reaching a budget deal with Clinton and after presiding over a loss of seats in the 1998 election. He resigned in 1998 but developed a lucrative post-Congressional career as chairman of the Gingrich Group, a communications and consulting firm with offices in Washington and Atlanta. He is rumored to be considering a presidential run in 2008.


Following a five-year investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office of Rep. Jay Kim (R-Calif.) — the first Korean-American elected to Congress — Kim pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor campaign finance violations, including knowingly accepting illegal corporate and foreign contributions from South Korean companies.

A subsequent investigation by the ethics committee turned up additional evidence of wrongdoing, but the panel dropped its case against him after Kim lost his primary — a primary he ran while confined to his home by an ankle bracelet.


Following an investigation, the ethics committee concluded that Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) had “exercised poor judgment” and “created substantial concerns regarding … the appearance of impropriety and the reputation of the House with regard to her relationship with African businessman Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko.”

Sissoko had provided lodging to Brown in his luxury Miami condominium in 1997 and his chief financial officer had given Brown’s daughter a $50,000 Lexus sedan. But the panel said it “did not obtain sufficient evidence” to “adopt or to prove a statement of alleged violation.”

In a stern letter of reproval, the ethics committee scolded Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) for bringing “discredit” to the House for accepting improper gifts and potentially misusing campaign funds. The letter cited “serious official misconduct” by the former Transportation and Infrastructure chairman with respect to his relationship with his with his chief of staff-turned-lobbyist Ann Eppard.


After a three-and-a-half-year inquiry, the ethics committee issued a stinging letter of reproval to Rep. Earl Hilliard (D-Ala.), charging the Congressman with “serious official misconduct” involving campaign expenditures that, among other things, benefited businesses in which the Member or his family had a stake.

Hilliard, who was defeated in a June 2002 primary, admitted to several infractions of campaign finance laws in a settlement reached with the committee.


Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio) — whose hairpiece, loud suits and quirky floor speeches made him arguably the House’s most eccentric Member — was expelled by the House after being convicted of bribery, obstruction of justice, defrauding the government, racketeering and tax evasion. The former lawmaker from Youngstown is currently serving out an eight-year sentence at a federal prison hospital in Rochester, Minn.

He was transferred there in December for treatment of an undisclosed condition and is slated for release on Aug. 10, 2009.


In October, the ethics committee admonished Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Reps. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) and Nick Smith (R-Mich.) for their conduct on the House floor during and after a protracted vote on the Medicare prescription drug bill.

The subcommittee concluded that DeLay had improperly promised to endorse Smith’s son’s campaign for his seat if Smith voted in favor of the bill, that Miller improperly threatened to work to defeat him and that Smith exaggerated by making claims that he’d been offered $100,000 for his son’s campaign.

In another October surprise, the ethics committee admonished DeLay for creating an appearance that donors were being provided special access when he participated in and facilitated a June 2002 energy company fundraiser at the Homestead resort in Virginia.

The panel also admonished the lawmaker for asking the Federal Aviation Administration to intervene in a partisan conflict by using its resources to track down a plane carrying Democratic Members of the Texas Legislature who were fleeing the state to prevent a quorum to vote on a GOP remapping of Congressional districts.