Sunday, June 18, 2006

A Profile in Corruption

By Jacob Laksin June 16, 2006

Outlining the Democrats’ message for the midterm elections this week, Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi stressed the need to criticize what she called the Republican Party’s “culture of corruption.” It was an unfortunate choice of phrase. Pelosi, after all, has repeatedly signaled her intention to name Florida Democrat Alcee Hastings the next chairman of the House Intelligence Committee should the Democrats recapture the House. Yet Hastings, more than most, deserves his own chapter in the annals of Congressional corruption.
That Hastings’s name is even being mentioned for the position -- or, indeed, any public office -- is itself noteworthy. A former federal judge, Hastings was named to the bench for the Southern District of Florida by Jimmy Carter in 1979. But in 1981 Hastings found himself embroiled in a corruption scandal, indicted on charges of conspiracy to accept a bribe. The case involved two brothers, Frank and Thomas Romano, who had been convicted in 1980 on 21 counts of racketeering. Together with attorney William Borders Jr., Hastings, who presided over the Romanos' case, allegedly hatched a plot to solicit a bribe from the brothers. In exchange for a $150,000 cash payment, Hastings would return some $845,000 of their $1.2 million in seized assets after they had served their three-year jail terms. Taped conversations between Hastings and Borders confirmed that the judge was a party to the plot, though he was acquitted by a jury in 1983.
Hastings did not evade justice for long. A report compiled by a special Investigating Committee in 1986 found clear evidence that Hasting’s had covered up his role in the bribery scheme. In 1988 the Democrat-led House voted 413 to 3 to impeach Hastings on numerous counts of conspiracy and perjury; a Democrat-controlled Senate subsequently removed him from his judgeship. The most withering criticism of Hastings came from a fellow black American, Michigan’s Democratic Congressman John Conyers. Admitting that he was sympathetic to Hastings’s politics, Conyers nonetheless condemned his role in “high crimes and misdemeanors,” and rendered a devastating verdict: “We did not wage the civil rights struggle in order to substitute one form of judicial corruption for another.”
Desperate and disgraced, Hastings played the race card. The charges against him were a function of “institutional racism,” Hastings claimed, defiantly announcing that he was not “afraid of the system.” Fortunately for Hastings, his impeachment did not disqualify him from seeking public office--a point disputed by some critics--and in 1992 he was back in the hated "system," elected to the House in Florida’s 23rd district. Hastings reveled in his improbable second act: “I bring with me the added notoriety of being impeached and removed by the same body that I now get to serve in,” Hastings boasted at the time.
Hastings has not been appreciably chastened by his scandal-plagued past. Reports circulate that the “Judge,” as he still styles himself, is once again the subject of speculation about a professional conflict of interest. At issue this time is the fact that Hastings has added to his payroll one Patricia Williams, a personal friend and former attorney who represented Hastings at his 1983 bribery trial and then his 1989 impeachment hearings but was disbarred in June of 1992 for misuse of her clients’ funds. Hastings is said to owe Williams substantial lawyer’s fees for her services in the eighties--between $500,000 and $1 million according to some estimates--and some see his decision to make her a staff assistant as a form of debt-settling at the public’s expense: Williams’ salary reportedly exceeds $92,000.
Nor does this exhaust the catalogue of Hastings’s career-long estrangement from ethics. The American Policy Center, a conservative group, has also called attention to the fact that, in recent years, Hastings has been under investigation for ethics violations by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. The APC additionally reports that Hastings has been investigated by the Florida Elections Commission and the Federal Election Commission for various charges of impropriety. Meanwhile, PoliticalMoneyLine, a watchdog group that tracks money in national politics, points out that Hastings can lay claim to one distinguishing, if dubious, achievement: he ranks second (after Rep. Douglas Bereuter of Nebraska) among American lawmakers in the number of taxpayer-funded trips he has taken since 1994, at a price tag of over $152,000. Many of those trips were taken on behalf of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an international body that monitors elections in developing democracies, and for which Hastings serves as a special coordinator. The irony of one of Congress’s most corrupt members being tasked to monitor electoral fraud has not gone unremarked.
One might expect that Hastings’s record would prevent his rise to positions where discretion and incorruptibility are prerequisites. In fact, the opposite seems to have happened. Today Hastings is a member of several sensitive intelligence committees, including the House Subcommittee on Terrorism/HUMINT, Analysis and Counterintelligence and the Subcommittee on Oversight. Now, if the voters oblige and Pelosi has her way, he may head one of the most important congressional panels created in the aftermath of September 11 -- an unlikely ascent for the man who, not so long ago, was known mainly for the fact that he was one of only six judges in the history of the United States to be removed from office by the Senate.
Hastings’s contribution to the state of intelligence, however, has amounted to little more than partisan provocation and relentless opposition to vital counterterrorism legislation. Beyond denouncing the war in Iraq as “unjustified” and irresponsibly accusing the Bush administration of “pre-meditated fabrication of intelligence,” Hastings has cast votes against the Patriot Act and the program of warrantless domestic surveillance of American citizens with suspected terrorism ties. Concerning the latter, Hastings has claimed that “President Bush unilaterally authorized a secret domestic spying program, illegally ignoring the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the general public’s civil rights.” That none of the charges is accurate--the Bush administration had consulted with Democratic legislators before enacting the program, which does not in fact violate the FISA act and has since been approved by a supervisory court established by that law--has not deterred Hastings from making them the core of his attacks on the administration. Politicizing security issues has also made Hastings a darling of the ACLU, which honored him with a special dinner last May for his votes against the Patriot Act.
To be sure, the fact that Hastings voted at all is no small accomplishment for the congressman. The Miami Herald reported this week that Hastings is one of the dozen chronic absentees in the current Congress. The fact does not augur well for his would-be promotion to the intelligence committee’s leadership. For instance, the Herald noted that "[d]uring a recent vote on legislation to punish thieves of confidential phone records, U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings was in Russia meeting with the leader of the Russian Parliament".
If Nancy Pelosi is troubled by Hastings's truancy -- or anything else in his résumé for that matter -- she has kept her concerns private. The reason appears to be that Hastings’s possible promotion has less to do with his qualifications, which are suspect at best, than simple intra-party politics. Specifically, Pelosi seems to be trying to recapture the good graces of the Congressional Black Caucus, which is still smarting over Pelosi’s decision to pass over a black legislator, Georgia Democrat Sanford Bishop, for the ranking post on the House intelligence committee in January of 2003.
Instead, Pelosi picked centrist California Democrat Jane Harman, an unusual act of reasonableness that came back to haunt her. Harman's generally hawkish stance on the Iraq war and support for a warrantless surveillance program -- Harman was among the bipartisan “gang of eight” who were briefed about the program by the White House -- has riled the terminally outraged fringes of the anti-war Left. (“She could have been a whistleblower, but chose not to be,” fumed the veteran radical Tom Hayden recently.) By forcing out Harman for Hastings, Pelosi evidently hopes to appease both the racial lobby within her own party and the implacable voices on the Left.
It speaks volumes about the Democratic Party’s priorities that Pelosi is determined to fill a national security post to which credibility and rectitude are critical with a man whose career is an affront to both. The only mystery is how Pelosi hopes to sell her message about a political “culture of corruption” when she is bent on promoting its leading representative.

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