Monday, July 16, 2007
House Intelligence Committee as Portal to Shady Earmarks
An internal investigation that the House Intelligence Committee has refused to make public portrays the panel as embarrassingly entangled in the Randy "Duke" Cunningham bribery scandal.
The report, a declassified version of which was obtained by the Los Angeles Times, describes the committee as a dysfunctional entity that served as a crossroads for almost every major figure in the ongoing criminal probe by the Justice Department.
The document describes breakdowns in leadership and controls that it says allowed Cunningham — the former congressman (R-Rancho Santa Fe) who began an eight-year prison term last year for taking bribes and evading taxes — to use his House position to steer millions of dollars to corrupt contractors.
When the committee's investigation was completed last year, the Republican-controlled panel would not release the results; now that the committee is controlled by Democrats, it still will not release the findings.
The report provides the most detailed account to date of how former CIA Executive Director Kyle Dustin "Dusty" Foggo, whose indictment on charges of defrauding the government was recently expanded, allegedly used committee connections to advance his career at the agency.
And the report sheds new light on the roles of senior committee aides, including retired CIA case officer Brant Bassett, who had ties to Cunningham and Foggo as well as to contractors accused of paying the congressman millions of dollars.
Overall, the document provides a penetrating look into how the committee itself became central to the scandal, describing an atmosphere in which senior aides were deeply troubled by Cunningham's actions but nevertheless complied with his requests out of fear.
But the report and committee members' ongoing disagreement over whether it should be released also reflect the political currents still swirling around the scandal.
For all its finger-pointing at staffers, the document fails to address whether other committee members were aware of Cunningham's abuses or were culpable. For instance, the report avoids any scrutiny of former Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), who was chairman of the panel when Cunningham's most egregious abuses occurred. Goss went on to serve as CIA director, from September 2004 to May 2006.
Democrats complained bitterly a year ago when Republicans blocked release of a declassified version of the final report. But two weeks ago, several Democrats joined Republicans to block the report's release only to other members of Congress. Five Democrats objected to keeping the report secret.
Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), who assumed leadership of the committee after Democrats won control of Congress last fall, said some Democratic members were reluctant to release a document that singled out staff members for criticism.
"My view was that the report was an internal review, principally of staff activity, and that the full report — with all of the names of staff — was not intended for dissemination beyond the committee," Reyes said. "The important thing is that the committee took the review seriously and incorporated changes" designed to prevent future abuses.
Congressional sources said Reyes and other Democrats had initially voted to let other members of Congress see the document, but reversed course after a fierce protest by the panel's ranking GOP member, Peter Hoekstra of Michigan.
"They are so nervous about this report being out," said one congressional official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Members oppose putting this thing out because you read this and the natural question is: 'Did you know this, and what did you do about it?' I don't think any members wanted that scrutiny."
The latest vote was prompted by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a critic of the so-called earmarks practice that allows members to slip special funding provisions into broader bills. Earmarks were one way Cunningham steered contracts to associates.
Jamal Ware, a spokesman for Hoekstra, stressed that the investigation found no wrongdoing by staffers or other members, and said the findings were never intended to be released.
"The classified, internal documents of this committee should have remained just that," Ware said. "The decision by a member or staff, against a bipartisan vote of the committee, to disclose this information is beyond the pale and raises concerns about trust on the committee."
The report's principal author said in an interview that the terms under which he was hired to conduct the investigation prevented him from examining lawmakers' roles.
"There was an agreement as to what they wanted to look at, and that was not anything that could be looked at under the sun," said Michael Stern, a former attorney in the House counsel's office who was hired by the committee to lead the internal probe. "The language did not include the culpability or potential involvement of other members."
Stern said that the full, 59-page report he prepared a year ago was classified, but that he also provided the committee a 23-page version that had been scrubbed of classified material. The Times obtained the declassified version.