Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, the number-two Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, is under investigation by the Justice Department for his ties to an Alaska-based oil services company, according to media reports. And he's not alone: Three other congressional appropriators are facing federal investigations, too.
House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) says another inquiry is complicating a favorite pastime for committee members: earmarking money for special projects that benefit constituents and, all too often, their donors.
Obey complained the committee has not been able to vet thousands of member requests, in part because the panel was busy turning over information to federal prosecutors related to former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.). Cunningham, a former appropriator, is now serving a 100-month federal prison term for bribery and tax evasion, among other charges.
All of this has some on Capitol Hill asking if there is something endemic to the culture of the appropriations committees, in both the House and the Senate. Is the scent of money too tempting, too corrupting? Is appropriation's long history of backroom deal-making no longer acceptable in this more transparent era?
Appropriators don't think so, of course, and they say that they don't believe there are any "cultural" problems specific to the committees. They note that Cunningham, whose criminal actions were directly related to his work on the Appropriations and Intelligence panels, got caught, was convicted and was sent to jail.
To them, it's proof that the system works, although several lawmakers noted that the way the Appropriations committees operate needs to be more open to public examination.
"Anyone who wants to manipulate the system, for a moment in time, can probably get away with it," acknowledged Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "But eventually they will be caught, and more transparency will ensure it doesn't happen again."
Stevens, a veteran appropriator and the longest-serving Republican in Senate history, is under federal investigation over his ties to Veco Corp., an Alaska-based oil services company, according to recent media reports.
An article Sunday in the Anchorage Daily News said a federal grand jury is looking into the events surrounding the remodeling of Stevens' home in Girdwood, Alaska, 40 miles south of Anchorage.
Some of the construction at the home was tied to Veco, and contractors who were hired or supervised by Veco officials.
Several former Veco executives have already pleaded guilty in an expanding federal corruption probe of the firm, and three current and former GOP state legislators in Alaska have been indicted.
Stevens has hired a criminal defense attorney and was asked by the Department of Justice to preserve documents related to the case. His son, Ben Stevens, a former state legislator, has come under investigation, as well.
Stevens became the fourth appropriator, House and Senate, Republican and Democrat, to be scrutinized by federal prosecutors.
Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, is being investigated over his relationship with another former member of the panel, ex-Rep. Bill Lowery (R-Calif.).
Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) is being scrutinized for his ties to former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and he resigned from the powerful committee after his house was raided by federal agents.
And Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), who chairs the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee on House Appropriations, is under investigation for steering money to nonprofits he was linked to, although he denies any wrongdoing.
Mollohan has recused himself from any matter related to the Justice Department, although Republicans contiue to hit the Democrats over the Mollohan allegations, arguing that he should no longer chair the subcommittee.
Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who was also on the Appropriations Committee, is under investigation over his ties to Abramoff, as well as for foreign travel and other actions. DeLay has denied any wrongdoing, but several of his former aides have already pleaded guilty in the probe.
"There is not anything inherently wrong with the Appropriations Committee," said a senior Senate Democrat on the panel. "But is (the Justice Department) targeting members of the committee? That's something that needs to be asked. I am not so sure anymore."
Several appropriators and lobbyists who specialize in appropriations work point out that not all the lawmakers known to be under federal investigation serve on the appropriations panels.
Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), recently indicted on a host of federal corruption charges, served on the House Ways and Means Committee. Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), the subject of another corruption probe, was a member of the Financial Services, Natural Resources and Intelligence committees before giving up his seats after the FBI raided his family business. Rep. Gary G. Miller (R-Calif.), whose land sales have been scrutinized by federal investigators, serves on the Financial Services and Transportation and Infrastructure committees.
But these other cases have still not stopped questions about the appropriations process and appropriators themselves, specifically the relationship between financial donors to members of the House and Senate committees and "earmarks" included in the annual spending bills.
A veteran appropriations lobbyist, requesting anonymity, noted that the House and Senate committees oversee hundreds of billions in federal spending annually spelled out in must-pass legislation, and no other panel in either body offers as attractive a vehicle for lobbyists or special-interest groups to target.
"Except for the Ways and Means Committee, there aren't any other committees that have a basket of goodies to give away every year," the lobbyist said. "A highway bill comes along every five years. No other committee offers the kind of opportunities (for lobbyists) that appropriations does."
Another veteran of the appropriations process, both inside and outside, laments there is little understanding about how hard members on the committee work -- and points out that very few spending earmarks have been linked to illicit behavior by members of the panel.
"There's this idea out there that earmarks are somehow equated with corruption," said James Dyer, former Republican chief of staff for the House Appropriations Committee who is now a lobbyist for the firm Clark & Weinstock. "That's just not the case at all, but there's this public perception, which is really unfortunate."