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Scandal and Corruption in California

A special House election features distortions on both sides.

April 10, 2006

Modified: April 10, 2006

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Summary

Tuesday's special election to replace disgraced ex-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham features TV ads making overheated use of words such as "scandal" and "corrupt." 

A National Republican Congressional Committee ad falsely implies that Democratic candidate Francine Busby broke a promise not to take political donations from lobbyists or government contractors – a promise she never made.

Busby's response is also over the top, claiming that the NRCC ad is financed by "corrupt money from Duke Cunningham and Tom DeLay." That's only 0.018 per cent true. Cunningham has given $13,688 of the NRCC's $74.1 million in receipts this election cycle, and DeLay has given nothing.

Analysis

The National Republican Congressional Committee released an ad April 5 against Busby, Democratic candidate to replace ex-Rep. Cunningham. The NRCC ad was airing during the final week before the April 11 special election to fill the House seat vacated by Cunningham, who was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison for taking bribes from government contractors.

 NRCC Ad: "Exceptions"

(On Screen: footage of Francine Busby holding up her left hand.)
(On Screen text: Francine Busby...said she's different.)
Announcer: Francine Busby...said she's different.
(On
Screen: Busby speaking into a microphone)
(On screen text: End gifts by lobbyists.  End financial arrangements with government contractors.)
Announcer:  She'd end gifts by lobbyists and financial deals with government contractors.
(On Screen: Busby speaking into a microphone, holding up both hands)
(On screen text: No exceptions) 
Announcer: Busby said "no exceptions."
(On Screen: Busby, behind a microphone, putting a hand to her face as names scroll across the back of the screen.)
( On Screen text: Thousands of dollars f rom lobbyists & employees of Government Contractors)
Announcer: Now we discover...Busby has taken thousands of dollars of campaign money from lobbyists and employees of government contractors...
(
On Screen: Fade into a photo of Dennis DeConcini behind a microphone.)
(On screen text: Dennis DeConcini, "Scandal-tainted...," "...hit by ethics scandals...")
Announcer:...including money from a scandal plagued lobbyist who left Congress after a pay for play scandal.
(On screen text: No exceptions, huh?)
Announcer: No exceptions, huh?
Announcer: Except for Francine Busby.
(On Screen: footage of Busby behind a microphone.)
(On Screen Text: Except for Francine Busby.)
Announcer: The National Republican Congressional Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.

The NRCC ad “Exceptions” quotes Busby saying she would “end gifts by lobbyists and financial deals with government contractors,” and her campaign slogan: “no exceptions.”  It then says Busby has “taken thousands of dollars of campaign money from lobbyists and employees of government contractors," as names of donors appear on screen. It says she took money "from a scandal plagued lobbyist who left Congress after a pay for play scandal,” showing a picture of former Democratic Senator Dennis DeConcini of Arizona. It ends: "No exceptions, huh?  Except for Francine Busby.”

Donations vs. Gifts

It is true that Busby accepted campaign donations from DeConcini and the dozen other individuals whose names are legible on screen.  Of the 12, one is a lobbyists and 11 work for companies that currently have or have had contracts with the federal or state government. However, Busby never swore off taking campaign donations from lobbyists or contractors, and the NRCC ad is wrong to imply that she did.

What she promised not to accept are personal gifts from lobbyists and outside financial relationships with contractors (the combination that got Cunningham in trouble) along with privately funded Congressional travel and secret meetings with lobbyists. That and more is spelled out in a Jan 11 press release outlining her "CLEAN Office Plan," which refers specifically to "gifts" as is proposed in Representative George Miller’s legislation. [H.R. 3177].  That bill would apply to personal gifts and specifically excepts “a lawful contribution for election to a State or local government office, or attendance at a fundraising event sponsored by a political organization.”

"Scandal-plagued Lobbyist?'

It is also true that ex-Sen. DeConcini donated to Busby’s campaign – all of $500 given on Feb. 7.  It was fully disclosed on the Federal Election Commission’s website.

It is also true that DeConcini is now a lobbyist for the law firm Parry, Romani, DeConcini & Symms which counts Pfizer, Chiron, GM, Roche and Verizon among its clients.

Calling him "scandal-plagued" is something of a stretch. We're not aware of any questions regarding DeConcini's lobbying work. What the ad refers to is DeConcini's involvement more than a decade ago with savings-and-loan figure Charles Keating, who served four years and nine months in prison and was convicted of bankruptcy fraud after bilking investors of millions. DeConcini had accepted $80,100 in campaign donations from Keating and also interceded with federal savings-and-loan regulators on Keating's behalf at a time when the regulators were starting to close in on the massive financial irregularities that eventually brought about the collapse of Keating's Lincoln Savings and Loan.

DeConcini was one of five Senators called before the Senate Ethics Committee – the so-called "Keating Five." The ethics panel unanimously concluded that DeConcini's actions "gave the appearance of being improper" and were marked by "insensitivity and poor judgment," but it recommend no formal disciplinary action by the Senate.

Busby’s Rebuttal

Francine Busby for Congress Ad: Still About Change 

(On Screen: Francine Busby stands with trees in the background.)
Francine Busby: The Washington insiders are so desperate they’re using corrupt money from Duke Cunningham and Tom DeLay to attack me.
(On Screen: A small screen showing clips from the NRCC ad “Exception.”  Below is a clip from an article in The Hill with the headline: "As parting gift, Duke cut check to NRCC")
(On Screen text: Over $643,000 from Duke Cunningham since 1998.)
Busby: Because they know I am determined to bring real change to Washington.  I’m Francine Busby and I approved this message.
(On Screen text: Busby Plan: no gifts)
Busby: My ethics plan means no gifts, no lobbyist paid trips…
(On Screen text: No lobbyist trips)
Busby: …no secret pork barrel spending…
(On Screen text: no secret spending.)
Busby: …no exceptions.
(On Screen text: No exceptions)
Busby: It’s time to end politics as usual, with your help we can.

Busby’s campaign responded with an ad  announced in an April 6 press release.   In it she says, “Washington insiders are so desperate they’re using corrupt money from Duke Cunningham and Tom DeLay to attack me.”  On screen appear the words, "Over $643,000 from Duke Cunningham since 1998."

That's a huge exaggeration. For one thing, nearly all the money from Cunningham and Delay was given to the NRCC in previous elections, not this one. So far in  this election cycle, which began Jan. 1 last year, the NRCC has received $13,684 from Cunningham and nothing at all from DeLay.

Furthermore, there's no indication that Cunningham's money was specifically used  to finance the anti-Busby ad. It also constitutes only a tiny fraction of the $74.1 million that the NRCC has reported receiving so far in this cycle.

So there is a grain of truth to the Busby ad, but a tiny one. Cunningham's donations amount to less than two-one-hundredths of one per cent of the money the NRCC has available to finance the anti-Busby ad and everything else it does. That's less than two cents on every $100.

Corrupt Money?

The ad refers to money from Cunningham and DeLay as "corrupt," which is also misleading.

Cunningham’s donations were legal. The ad shows a headline from The Hill newspaper which says, "As parting gift, Duke cut check to NRCC." But that very news story notes the following: 

The Hill: Cunningham’s (campaign) account was subjected to no special limitations after his conviction, raising the prospect that another lawmaker could funnel an entire war chest of millions of dollars to colleagues or a party committee on his or her way to the penitentiary.  “They can donate it to charity or party committees,” said Ian Stirton, a spokesman for the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

DeLay gave nothing to the NRCC in this cycle, and his earlier donations were also legal. He's currently under indictment in Texas on a charge of "money laundering" because of $140,000 in corporate donations that were given in 2002 to the Republican National State Elections Committee, which is separate from the NRCC.  DeLay denies he had anything to do with directing that transaction, and whether that money is "corrupt" or not remains for a jury to decide. In any case it couldn't have gone into the anti-Busby ad.
— by Emi Kolawole & Brooks Jackson

Sources

 

Busby, Francine P.” Candidate Summary Report,  Federal Elections Commission.  2005-2006 Election Cycle.

The Congressional Biographical Directory.  “DeConcini, Dennis Webster, (1937 -).”

Francine Busby for Congress.  “Busby Releases CLEAN OFFICE proposal,” News Release.  11 January 2006.    

Francine Busby for Congress.  “They Know I’m Determined to Bring Real Change to Washington ,” News Release.  6 April 2006.

Helen Dewar, "Panel Finds 'Credible Evidence' Cranston Violated Ethics Rules; No Further Action Sought Against 4 Other Senators in Keating Case," Washington Post 28 Feb 1991:A12.

“Lobby Gift Ban Act of 2005,” HR 3177.  109th Congress. 1st Session. 

Marelius, John.  “National GOP goes at Democrat seeking to replace disgraced Cunningham,” Copley News Service 6 April 2006

Peter Bronson, "Keating asks hometown to hear his side," The Cincinnati Enquirer 7 Feb 2006: 11C