Congressional Scandals: From Craigslist Sex Solicitations to Jackson Memorabilia, a Well-Worn Path
Posted at 2:56 p.m. on May 2, 2014
(Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call Illustration)
Reps. Vance McAllister, R-La., and Michael G. Grimm, R-N.Y., are back at work in Washington, vowing not to let their respective scandals — the former was caught kissing a married staffer, the latter faces fraud and tax evasion charges — keep them from representing their districts.
But as some of their predecessors in the House and Senate can attest, it can be tough to compartmentalize in the fishbowl that is the U.S. Capitol.
Here’s a look back at some of the biggest congressional scandals of the past decade or so, and what happened to the lawmakers caught in their own tangled webs, selected to give a glimpse into the potential political fates that could befall Grimm and McAllister. And yes, they are all men.
1. Sen. John Ensign — Like McAllister, the former Republican senator from Nevada was ensnared in an interoffice romance with a married staffer. Unlike McAllister, Ensign was all but forced to resign in May 2011, in anticipation of a Senate Ethics Committee report so damning it probably would have resulted in his expulsion from the chamber. The source of Ensign’s woes came not from his extramarital dalliance with campaign aide Cynthia Hampton, but from his maneuvers to keep it secret. To keep Hampton’s husband, Douglas — who was also an Ensign staffer at the time — quiet, the senator secured him a lucrative job with a Nevada lobby shop, despite the one-year ban on lobbying for former congressional aides. Ensign’s parents also funneled $96,000 to the Hamptons. And, of course, critics didn’t miss the fact that Ensign had called on President Bill Clinton to resign over his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky nearly a decade earlier.
2. Rep. Mark Souder — Add the Indiana Republican to the list of lawmakers forced to resign for an affair with an aide — one with whom he had made a video promoting abstinence. In 2011, six months after a park ranger found Souder and his paramour entwined in a parked car in a local nature preserve, the news surfaced and the gears were set in motion to advance his swift fall from grace. Souder’s GOP colleague at the time, Mike Pence, reported him to the House Ethics Committee, and John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who was then minority leader, urged the Indiana Republican to step down. Souder scored points in a tearful farewell address by not making his wife stand beside him, noting that he wanted her to maintain her dignity.
3. Rep. Anthony Weiner — The bombastic former Democratic congressman from New York is a study in how not to handle the fallout of a sex scandal. In the summer of 2011, Weiner spent weeks denying that he had sent lewd photos of himself to women via Twitter. When he finally confessed, it almost made everything worse. House Democrats, still wounded by their relegation to the minority less than a year earlier, were mortified by the distraction their colleague was causing. Party leaders as high up as Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called on him to resign, and Weiner ultimately complied. The public saw Weiner attempt a political comeback in 2013, when he ran for mayor of New York City — except it turned out that he had never stopped “sexting.”
4. Rep. Chris Lee — In February 2011, the New York Republican delivered a lesson in taking ownership of one’s scandal by resigning hours after revelations of his actions surfaced. Earlier in the day, the website Gawker published a shirtless selfie of Lee, accompanied by an email the congressman purportedly sent to a woman he met on Craiglist. A 46-year-old husband and father, Lee called himself a “39-year-old lobbyist,” but the photo, which included a clear shot of his face, might have given him away. In any case, Lee turned in his notice to Boehner by the day’s end, suggesting that there may have been more to this story — or maybe he was already exhausted.
5. Rep. Trey Radel — The freshman Republican from Florida was best known for tweeting about hip-hop and Sky Mall magazine until October 2013, when he was arrested by the D.C. police for buying cocaine. Radel tried to ride out the embarrassment, invoking a history of alcohol addiction and taking a leave of absence to undergo treatment. He sought forgiveness from his colleagues, constituents and family, and initially refused to step down. He probably could have kept his job for the remainder of his term, at least, if he had wanted to, given that GOP leadership declined to demand his resignation outright. But Radel soon learned how much political capital one can lose for being the target of a drug bust. Shunned by colleagues, he ultimately quit in January, three months after his arrest.
6. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy — Not everyone who suffers a humiliating drug-related episode suffers political consequences. The Rhode Island Democrat is the son of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who was no stranger to scandal himself, thanks to a drunken driving incident in 1969 that led to the death of his young female passenger. The younger Kennedy’s watershed moment came in 2006, when he drove through Capitol Police barricades in the middle of the night, proclaiming in an Oxycontin, Ambien and Phenergan-induced haze that he was rushing to vote on the House floor. Nobody ever let him forget it, but nobody forced him to step down, either. Maybe it was because of his famous last name, or maybe it was because his colleagues appreciated the scope of his illness. Whatever it was, Kennedy became a champion for universal parity in mental health treatment and chose to retire in 2011.
7. Sen. David Vitter — Some members who have found themselves in sticky situations choose to cut their losses by declining to resign but agreeing not to seek re-election (the aforementioned “Kissing congressman” McAllister, plus GOP Rep. Vito “Secret Family” Fossella of New York and Republican Sen. Larry “Soliciting Sex in the Airport Restroom” Craig of Idaho). But Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, opted to take neither route when he was outed as a client of the infamous D.C. Madam, who ran a high-end escort service in Washington. The revelation was humiliating for Vitter, who admitted to what he called his “sin” in July 2007, while standing beside his wife. It also put him on the offensive as to his credentials as a staunch “family values” social conservative. But Vitter, who is currently running for governor, is still in Congress seven years later.
8. Rep. Rick Renzi — If there’s a cautionary tale for Grimm, look no further than Renzi, the Arizona Republican who was indicted while serving in the House, denied wrongdoing and refused to resign, was stripped of committee assignments and decided not to seek re-election. In February 2008, Renzi was indicted on 35 counts of extortion, money laundering and conspiracy in connection with his efforts to compel the federal government to buy land from his business partner three years earlier. By November, that business partner had been sentenced to jail time. Nearly five years later, Renzi was given his three-year sentence. A judge recently denied Renzi bail as he appeals his conviction. (Grimm, by the way, has already seen two of his associates arrested.)
9. Rep. William J. Jefferson — The Democratic Louisiana congressman was sentenced to 13 years in prison in November 2009 on a variety of counts related to conspiracy to solicit bribes, money laundering, wire fraud and using his office for personal gain — he was caught with a $90,000 stash of cash in his home freezer. Like Renzi, he refused to step down, even though he had been indicted and was facing trial. Unlike Renzi, Jefferson tried to stay in office another term. It looked like he was going to pull it off, too, but the nine-term incumbent was ousted in one of the biggest surprises of the 2008 election cycle by Anh “Joseph” Cao, a Republican who was defeated in the heavily Democratic district two years later.
10. Sen. Ted Stevens — What most embattled, indicted lawmakers have in common is maintaining their innocence until the bitter end, even as the law hands down guilty verdicts. In Stevens’ case, he was ultimately vindicated. The late-Republican senator from Alaska was indicted in July 2008 on seven counts relating to allegations that he filed doctored financial disclosures to hide more than $250,000 in gifts he received over an eight-year period. Stevens, who was at that time the longest-serving senator in history, lost his re-election bid to Democrat Mark Begich just days after he was found guilty on all seven counts of corruption. The next year, the Justice Department was forced to dismiss all charges after revelations of prosecutorial malpractice. Stevens died in a plane crash one year later.
11. Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. — The story of the Illinois Democrat’s legal woes is one of the weirder tales in congressional history. It started when Jackson, the son of the famous civil rights leader of the same name, abruptly disappeared from Capitol Hill shortly after his 2012 re-election with no explanation from his office as to his whereabouts. Aides eventually said he was at the Mayo Clinic receiving treatment for bipolar disorder, but then news surfaced that Jackson was the subject of a federal probe into whether he misused campaign funds to, among other things, purchase a $40,000 Rolex watch and Michael Jackson memorabilia. He resigned just weeks later, on Nov. 21, 2012. In August 2013, he was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
12. Rep. Charles B. Rangel — The veteran New York Democrat was never indicted, but he holds the distinction of being the first House member in almost three decades to receive a formal censure from the chamber — the punishment just short of expulsion — for a slew of ethical violations. In late 2010, a multiyear investigation by the House Ethics Committee (then called the House Committee on Standards and Official Conduct) culminated in the determination that Rangel had misused federal resources to solicit donations for a City College of New York center bearing his name, housed his campaign office in a rent-stabilized apartment, failed to pay taxes on a villa in the Dominican Republican and filed inaccurate financial disclosure forms. The censure required Rangel to stand in the well of the House to receive admonishment in front of all his peers, and the allegations themselves stripped him of his chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Rangel, an aging eccentric, is still beloved by his peers: The speech he delivered immediately following the censure vote was met with a round of applause.
Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.
Correction: 5:45 p.m.
An earlier version of this post misstated the extent of Ensign’s legal troubles.