If the scandal involving super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff -- who pleaded guilty to scamming clients, conspiring to bribe a member of Congress and tax evasion -- doesn't hurt Republicans during the 2006 elections, it will be because voters have figured out that Democratic leaders don't really care about ethics.
Consider how the left has targeted Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., in the Abramoff scandal. This month, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called for an ethics investigation of Pombo and Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., while admitting she couldn't cite a single fact as to why a probe is needed.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington named Pombo one of the "13 most corrupt members of Congress." Its list targets 11 Repubs, some of whom are clearly dirty -- Rep. Duke Cunningham, who pleaded guilty to taking bribes, and Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, who is knee-deep in the Abramoff plea agreement. Other Republicans, however, seem guilty mostly of being targeted by Democrats for defeat in 2006. Take the prim Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa. He is cited -- get this -- because his kids attend a Pennsylvania charter school (instead of a school in Virginia) and because he supported legislation to clarify the mission of the National Weather Service after a group gave his campaign $2,000. Oooooooo. (CREW's Melanie Sloan did not get back to me by my deadline.)
That's chump change, and that distracts from the real corruption in Washington and in the GOP. Go after Tom DeLay for his luxury golf travel -- now known to have been on Abramoff's dime. Stories linking Doolittle with Abramoff and other big donors make me want to know more.
But Pombo? Since 1999, the Center for Responsive Politics found, Pombo received $40,500 from Abramoff or his client tribes. The center also found that Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., received $40,980 from Abramoff tribes -- but Pelosi and CREW aren't calling Murray corrupt.
"I've read that I was one of his closest allies in the House," Pombo told me over coffee last week. "I know that I've met him three times. I may have met him another time or two."
Pombo knows why Democrats don't like him. He's chairman of the House Resources Committee, and he has promoted opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Now, since the Dems have failed to unseat him in a fair fight on issues, they're trolling in the muck and trying to tie Pombo to Abramoff.
The Contra Costa Times took an exhaustive look at the charges hurled at Pombo. The paper reported how Pombo used his clout, at times excessively -- take taxpayer-funded pro-Bush mailers he sent out to snowmobile owners in battleground states before the 2004 election -- but there is no smoking gun.
Do I have issues with him? Yes. As I told Pombo, some of his decisions emit the odor of having hobnobbed in D.C. for too long. Pombo's wife has worked as a paid fund-raiser for his committee, and his brother as a treasurer. He told me: "I have had family on the payroll from the very beginning. When no one else would take my campaign, my brother left his job ... and worked for me."
As Pombo sees it, they are paid a fair wage -- an average of $48,000 a year for his wife, $43,255 for his brother, according to the Contra Costa Times -- and "I can trust them." Where he sees only $40-something, I think voters may see nepotism. Pombo should understand that it looks bad.
Ditto Steve Ding, who also makes more than $150,000 as chief of staff for the Resources committee, but also makes money as Pombo's congressional chief of staff and on the side working for GOP candidates. It's odd for a committee chief of staff to live outside of the Beltway and let taxpayers foot the bill -- some $30,000 a year -- when he visits the Capitol.
Pombo believes it's better to get committee staff out of Washington. He wants his aides to live in "the real world." Ding noted that his travel is covered by an operating budget. It doesn't cost extra, and it is customary for taxpayers to fund staffers' travel either to or from a member's district.
Cunningham's graft netted him a 19th-century Louis-Philippe commode. DeLay traveled and golfed in high style on Abramoff's dime, as he conveniently turned against a bill to curb Internet gambling. Pombo is made of different stuff. His idea of a good vacation is taking his family to Yellowstone in an RV.
As for Nancy Pelosi, she has shown that corruption doesn't bother her nearly as much as losing House seats. As long as she picks on Pombo, not the real Abramoff cronies, she deserves to lose more.