May 22, 2000
The Honorable Pat Roberts, Chairman
The Honorable Harry Reid, Ranking Member
Select Committee on Ethics
United States Senate
220 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
RE: Ethics Complaint and Request for Investigation of Senate Majority Leader Trent LottDear Chairman Roberts and Ranking Member Reid:
This letter constitutes an ethics complaint against U.S. Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) and request for investigation of whether he violated Senate Rules or other Senate standards of conduct prohibiting linkage between contributions and official action.
This complaint is filed pursuant to Rule 2 of the Senate Ethics Procedure
Reform Resolution of 1999, which authorizes the Senate Select Committee
on Ethics ("Ethics Committee") to receive complaints "alleging that any
Senator...has violated a law, the Senate Code of Official Conduct, or any
rule or regulation of the Senate relating to the conduct of any individual
in the performance of his or her duty as a Member...or has engaged in improper
conduct which may reflect upon the Senate."(1)
A: Did Senate Majority Leader Lott Use "Heavy-Handed Tactics" to Pressure Lobbyists for Contributions to Americans for Job Security in Exchange for Official Action?On May 16th, The Washington Post reported that Senate Majority Leader Lott may have pressured high-tech lobbyists for contributions to a non-profit organization, Americans for Job Security, to assist the re-election efforts of Senator Spencer Abraham (R-MI), in exchange for legislative action on an immigration bill that the high-tech firms want desperately. The immigration bill would help alleviate job shortages in high-tech firms by increasing the number of immigration visas available for skilled foreign workers. The Post article reports that:
Senate Republicans have pressured high-technology companies to raise money for advertisements supporting Michigan Sen. Spencer Abraham, one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents this fall and the chief sponsor of a measure that is a top priority for the companies.
An exchange of e-mails obtained by The Washington Post details how the companies scrambled to come up with money for television and radio advertising campaigns after encouragement from Abraham and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) -- at least in part because the companies feared that failing to do so would stall their legislation.
"I have heard that regardless of our 'limitations,' we need to do something for Abraham if we want to see something moved in the Senate," Jenifer Verdery, a lobbyist for computer chip manufacturer Intel Corp., wrote on March 21. "It must be visible and soon. (from Senate leadership)."
Responding to Verdery's e-mail plea for funding, a lobbyist for Motorola said the company could kick in $3,000, adding, "According to my calculations that has us at about $7,000 so far. Any chance other companies can kick in quickly so we can show our support for Abraham? I think the sooner the better! We really can't afford to lose this opportunity."
A few weeks later, on April 7, Lott summoned the lobbyists to a meeting at Senate Republican campaign headquarters -- this time to suggest they donate money for the Americans for Job Security advertising campaign.
"I'm just back from the meeting that Trent Lott called to discuss the treatment Abraham's been getting at the hands of FAIR," wrote one lobbyist who attended the meeting. "Lott's message was that there is a nonprofit called 'Americans for Job Security' that is going to run hard-hitting ads to fight fire with fire against FAIR. We were asked for our support (no surprise)."
The e-mail continued, "I told Lott that ABLI [American Business for Legal Immigration] had already made an effort in response to these ads, that the ads were despicable, etc. Still, of course, they want contributions to this nonprofit. My sense is that the companies in the room will take care of it . . . ."
Several of the recipients of the e-mails said they felt Lott and his staff had used "heavy-handed tactics" in setting up the meeting.
"There were a number of people who took offense," one lobbyist said. Some companies also were concerned that the overture could look like they were coordinating spending with a campaign, which would be illegal, the lobbyist said.(2)
The Washington Post account, if accurate, provides the appearance of improper linkage between the solicitation of contributions to Americans for Job Security, and the fate of the immigration visa bill. The Ethics Committee should determine precisely why Intel lobbyist Jenifer Verdery felt the imperative to "do something for Abraham if we want to see something moved in the Senate." Do other lobbyists confirm her sense of ties between contributions to Americans for Job Security, and Senate action on the immigration visa bill? What exactly did the Senate Majority Leader and his staff do to make a lobbyist complain of "heavy-handed tactics"?
At a minimum, the Ethics Committee should interview the high-tech lobbyists working on the immigration visa legislation, as well as the Senate Majority Leader and Senator Abraham and their staff, to verify the facts in this case, and probe the link between contributions and official action.
In its report on the Investigation of Senator Alan Cranston, the Ethics Committee concluded that "established norms of Senate behavior do not permit linkage between...official actions and...fund raising activities."(3) The Cranston Report notes that:
The Senate Gifts Rule notes that a gift from registered lobbyist of a contribution to a non-profit may count under Senate Rules as gift to the Senator. Specifically, the Rule states that:Because Senators occupy a position of public trust, every Senator always must endeavor to avoid the appearance that the Senator, the Senate, or the governmental process may be influenced by campaign contributions or other benefits provided by those with significant legislative or governmental interests.(4)
The Senate Ethics Manual interprets this rule as prohibiting the solicitation of charitable contributions -- such as a contribution to Americans for Job Security -- from a registered lobbyist:A gift prohibited by paragraph 1(a) includes....A charitable contribution (as defined in section 170(c) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986) made by a registered lobbyist or an agent of a foreign principal on the basis of a designation, recommendation, or other specification of a Member, officer, or employee...(5)
The Code of Ethics for Government Service prohibits a Senator from accepting "favors or benefits under circumstances which might be construed by reasonable persons as influencing the performance of his governmental duties.""Members and staffers may not, however, solicit charitable contributions from registered lobbyists or foreign agents, lest any resulting contribution from the lobbyist or foreign agent be deemed a gift to the Member or staffer who made the solicitation."(6) [Emphasis in the original.]
Arguably, it is conceivable that the conduct described in the Washington Post may have involved bribery or extortion. The Senate Ethics Manual describes bribery as follows:
The Senate Ethics Manual notes the demanding requirement for bribery established in United States v. Brewster, that the "bribery section makes necessary an explicit quid pro quo..."(8)Where the solicitation or acceptance is tied to an official act, however, the U.S. Criminal Code comes into play. The federal bribery statute makes it a crime for a public official, including a Member or employee of the Senate, to ask for or receive gifts, money or other things of value in connection with the performance of official duties. Bribery occurs when a federal official "directly or indirectly, corruptly" receives or asks for "anything of value personally or for any other person or entity, in return for...being influenced in the performance of any official act.(7)
Regarding extortion, the Hobbs Act prohibits:
the obtaining of property from another, with his consent, induced by wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear, or under color of official right."(9)
B: ConclusionThe heart of the matter here is whether Senate Majority Leader Lott corruptly put legislative action up for sale, and engaged in an advanced form of arm-twisting. This renting of influence and abuse of power, if true, subverts the democratic process.
The Ethics Committee should appoint outside counsel to uncover the facts in this case, and determine whether Senate Majority Leader Lott has triggered any provisions of Senate Rules, or other applicable standards of Senate conduct.
1. Senate Ethics Procedure Reform Resolution of 1999, Rule 2(a), Congressional Record S14204, November 5, 1999.
2. Mike Allen, "GOP Pressures Tech Firms To Help Michigan Senator; Lobbyists Feared Bill's Fate Hinged On Money for Ads." The Washington Post, May 16, 2000. Attachment #1 also includes Gebe Martinez, "GOP Tapped Tech Execs to Aid Abraham; Senate Republicans Sought Industry Cash to Offset Negative Ads." Detroit News, May 17, 2000.
3. Senate Select Committee on Ethics, Investigation of Senator Alan Cranston, S. Rep. No. 102-223, 102nd Cong., 1st Sess. (1991), at 29.
4. Senate Select Committee on Ethics, Investigation of Senator Alan Cranston, S. Rep. No. 102-223, 102nd Cong., 1st Sess. (1991), at 11-12.
5. Senate Rule 35.3(b).
6. Senate Ethics Manual at 73.
7. Senate Ethics Manual at 74, in part quoting 18 U.S.C. § 201 (b)(2)(A).
8. Senate Ethics Manual at 74, quoting United States v. Brewster, 506 F.2d 62, 72 (D.C. Cir. 1974.
9. 18 U.S.C § 1951(b)(2).