Springfield State Journal-Register

February 22, 2006

Illinois lawmakers say Cunningham 'bribe menu' may fuel reform effort

By Dori Meinert
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- A "bribe menu" contrived by disgraced former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham may bolster efforts to enact ethics reform in Congress, Illinois lawmakers said Tuesday.

But the lawmakers, many of whom are in their districts for the President's Day recess, differ on what specific reforms are needed to guard against future abuse, and most seek to protect their right to earmark funding for their districts.

Cunningham, a former California lawmaker, wrote on his official congressional stationery the amount of the bribe he required to deliver government contracts of various amounts, according to a presentencing memo filed in court Friday by federal prosecutors.

"What he did is atrocious. It's a perversion of the system. He has brought shame on the Congress. There's no question about it," said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, who served on both the House Appropriations and Intelligence Committees with Cunningham.

"I think probably some good things will come of it and what I mean by that is these earmarks will become very transparent and very apparent to the public and people will have to justify them," LaHood said.

Illinois' two Democratic senators said they hoped that the blatant acts by Cunningham will provide more fuel for the reform effort on Capitol Hill.

"What Duke Cunningham has done is reach new depths in terms of corruption in the House of Representatives," said Sen. Dick Durbin, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"Unfortunately, we're learning from the House Republican leadership that their attention span on ethics reform is very short, and I would hope this new revelation will rekindle their interest in changing the rules in both the House and the Senate," Durbin said.

Last month, House Republican leaders promised to move quickly on lobbying reform in the wake of the separate scandals involving Cunningham former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But the momentum has since slowed.

Sen. Barack Obama said he hoped that, after the Abramoff scandal, Congress "is sufficiently shamed and motivated to do something to increase transparency and decrease lobbyist influence. If not, I hope that the revelations about Mr. Cunningham's actions will outrage most Americans until they force Congress to act," said Obama.

LaHood rejected critics' charge of a slowdown in the march toward promised reforms in Congress.

"We're going to pass some major reform legislation in March. I believe that," said LaHood.

While most Illinois lawmakers aren't willing to give up their earmarks, as some reform advocates are pushing for, they agree more openness is needed.

LaHood said he's proud of the earmarked funds he's been able to direct to his central Illinois district.

"I've never snuck one in the middle of the night," he said.

Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Morris, said he's proud of his earmarks for programs that help pregnant women, battered women and the drug-addicted.

"So in the sense that most earmarks accomplish a great deal of good, this body really needs to avoid being reactionary - after all, Duke Cunningham is going to jail for a long time under existing law," Weller said.

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, who represents part of Springfield, said he still supports earmarks but said, "I have no problem being identified as the sponsor of a particular project."

Obama has proposed the creation of an independent ethics commission to investigate ethics complaints.

"The sad truth is that neither the House nor the Senate ethics process inspires public confidence that Congress can serve as an effective watchdog over its own members," Obama said in a statement issued by his office.

LaHood said he opposes such an independent panel, saying "we ought to be able to do that on our own."

Durbin said he is still weighing the proposal.