Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Questions are raised about San Diego Congressman Darrel Issa - is he doing the people's business or his own?
Article published by "The New York Times" on August 15, 2011: A Businessman in Congress Helps His District and Himself By ERIC LICHTBLAU
When does a win/win situation for a Congressman and his constituents cross the line to become a political conflict of interest? A major story on the business dealings of North County Congressman Darrell Issa appeared in this Monday's New York Times. Among allegations about earmarks that benefit Issa's businesses is a fundamental question. Should a member of Congress, who is worth about 700-million dollars, be engaged in running extensive business affairs while he's an elected representative of the people? And how closely should we scrutinize how those businesses are benefiting from his decisions?
Benjamin Bycel, founding Executive Director of both the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission and the Connecticut Office of State Ethics.
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. It's Tuesday, August 16th. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Coming up this hour, a plan to revitalize downtown Ramona has been in the works for almost ten years. Now, a new county land-use plan may finally make that dream come true. And San Diego reveres its military past and present. However, a new book argues the U.S. relies too heavily on military might and too little on diplomacy. But first, a major story on the business dealings of North County Congressman, Darryl Issa, appeared in Monday's New York Times. Among allegations about earmarks that benefit Issa's businesses is a fundamental question: Should a member of Congress who is worth about $700 million be engaged in running expensive business affairs while he's an elected representative of the people? And how closely should we scrutinize how those businesses might be benefitting from his decisions?
Joining me to discuss the ethical issues raised by this report is my guest, attorney Benjamin Bycel, founding executive director of the Los Angeles city ethics commission and the Connecticut office of state ethics. Good afternoon, thank you for joining us.
BYCEL: My pleasure.
CAVANAUGH: One of the points brought out by the New York Times article is that most people in Congress who are very wealthy stop working on their personal financial interests while they're in Congress and Darryl Issa has not. What do wealthy lawmakers usually do?
BYCEL: For the most part, any level, state or federal, they put their holdings and their work in a blind trust. And somebody who they do not know or may know but doesn't report to them keeps the business going, keeps the investment going, and they do not take a day to day or week to week interest in that. They certainly don't spend their time, any part of their time every day promoting their interests.
CAVANAUGH: Why is that that they do that? What's the potential problem with being involved in business and investments while you are also a member of Congress?
BYCEL: Well, it sounds like a complain slogan, but it's what the democracy is founded upon. Holding public office is a public trust. And all of your acts should be for the beneficiaries of that public trust, and that's all the people. If you are in fact devoting any of your energy during the day to your own businesses and businesses that you profit from, you are taking away from that public trust. So it doesn't matter whether you devote ten minutes, 20 minutes, an hour or two hours, that should not be done.
CAVANAUGH: Are there any actual laws that require people to work full time as congressional lawmakers?
BYCEL: Yes. The assumption is -- throughout the entire legal system at every level of government is that's what you do. Now, of course politicians do a lot of extra work. They work at night, on the weekends. So from time to time, if they have to answer a private phone call or need to deal with their own private business, that should be the exception to the rule, not the rule. And the perception, especially in the case you were working about where a Congressman has his office right down the hall from his private business office, that perception would be that there's more than just a casual connection between his work and his government work.
CAVANAUGH: But to be clear, as you point out in the article that we learned, Congressman Issa has his business office down the hall from his local congressional district office here in north San Diego. Is there anything specifically wrong with that?
BYCEL: I do not know of a law that prevents that as long as he's reported, doesn't deal with paying himself rent and other kinds of things. I don't think that there's a specific law that would say that that's a violation -- of a law. The question is the fundamental interest of somebody, especially a powerful Congressman who Espouses the notion that the public trust is what he's involved in needs to deal with perception as much as reality.
CAVANAUGH: Congressman Darryl Issa sponsored an earmark in Congress that brought in 800,000 federal dollars that will help widen the highway near a medical plaza he owns. This is what the Congressman told us about that earmark last April.
ISSA (Audio Recording): It's the only time I can imagine where there's a public disclosure by the city and by SANDAG of the request, a public disclosure that we're asking for money which by the way has never built the road or any of that, and months after it's all public, someone decides to sell a property along that based on a multiple of earnings based on its existing tenants and we buy it. It wasn't land development. There's no big change that would have occurred had the funding occurred. So you're talking about something that could have would have maybe have happened but in fact didn't. And more importantly, once something is public, the value of any improvement is priced into the selling price. It's a terrible example. At the same time, though, it's a good example of why there need to be strict rules if they're going to have member driven or administration driven priorities go to specific entities, and I hope to work to get that on a bipartisan basis. I've been trying to. One of the reasons I quit taking those earmarks years ago and forwarding them is I felt we needed to have a process that was fair and transparent. And we don't have that yet.
CAVANAUGH: That's Congressman Darryl Issa commenting to KPBS radio last April. We contacted the Congressman's office to respond to be on our show today and talk about all the allegations in the New York Times article. But he declined. His office has issued a statement calling the times article riddled with factual errors predicated on innuendo and not account fa. Aside from one minor correction, the New York Times is sticking with its story. So I want to reintroduce my guest. Benjamin Bycel, he's executive director of the Los Angeles city ethics commission and the Connecticut office was state ethics, and we're talking about ethical issues, the kinds raised in this article about Congressman Issa. You heard the Congressman, ben, talk about the fact that he thinks that there's sort of a -- not a very strict requirement on disclosure, even though he defended this particular action, this earmark. You talk about that a lot of these ethical questions could be resolved by either disclosure or better ethics rules. Let's talk first about disclosure. What could a Congressman like Issa do before engaging in religion that comes here his investments?
BYCEL: First of all, I am the former executive director so we get that straight as long as we're talking about ethics.
CAVANAUGH: Sure. Lives.
BYCEL: I agree with the Congressman, the end of his quote is, he says, look, you should do this and you should do that. Disclosure is not a difficult thing, to stand up and say, say in the Merrill-Lynch example in the New York Times story, to say I investment in Merrill-Lynch. I've had a great deal of economic interaction with Merrill-Lynch. And I want people to know that. It's not an admission of guilt, it's not an admission that you've done anything wrong. It simply is transparency. That's what we're calling for a government, what the Congressman is calling for in his own investigations. It's not very hard to simply say I do not perceive that I've done anything wrong but I need to tell you that I've had interactions with this bank or with this government or the fact that there's X millions of dollars going into a project that's near one of my projects. I think you should know about it. And here's what I had to do with it. So it's very easy to make a disclosure. Now it can go to the absurd. You can't need to disclosure every single thing. But I think in the cases that the New York Times sited, it would not have been difficult for the Congressman to issue a disclosure.
CAVANAUGH: Why do you think lawmakers fail to make these disclosures?
BYCEL: In some cases, they make a judgment or they have been advised by their staffs that there's no reason to do it. But since perception is reality, do we like that, do we want that? No. But that is the realty that everybody from left to right, from the tea party to the other end of the spectrum are crying about. They want people in politics to make disclosures when they may have a conflict of interest. So I think it's incumbent, it's a higher standard, a higher duty than a nonelected official to make those disclosures, whether or not the law requires it is not the issue. It's use reasonable judgment to make a disclosure, and if you can defend it, defend it. If you can't defend it, then you need it talk about it in another sense.
CAVANAUGH: The congressional ethics committee has apparently looked into Congressman Issa and found insufficient evidence for proceeding on any deep ethical inquiry. Are lawmakers good at policing themselves on ethics?
BYCEL: No, not at all. If you look at the base jurisdiction of the committee on ethics if are the house, they can make a series of recommendations. But unlike other ethics commissions, primarily the city ethics commission of Los Angeles or the state ethics commission of California that can act on their own, the ethics commission which, by the way, is equally made up of Democrats and Republicans so you can see how hard it is to get anything done, can only make recommendations to the entire house. They can't do anything on their own. So effectively, you know, their hands are tied. Their mouth is open, but their hands are tied to do anything. So I don't think there's really effective enforcement of ethics rules at the federal level.
CAVANAUGH: Even when they are enforced, you make the argument that the consequences are if ethical violations in Congress are not strong enough. What would you like to see in.
BYCEL: Well, let's assume it's not a criminal act. So we're not talking about jail time. You have a whole range from public censure to loss of office. Fines are reasonably -- they don't work. If you're talking about someone who's a millionaire or multimillionaire, to fine either one of them, he or she 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 is a meaningless gesture. It's the cost of doing business. I think the risk of losing office should very well be there for serious offenses. Short of that, there should be public censure, and other requirements that the Congress person do certain things to remedy the situation he got himself in.
CAVANAUGH: In this New York Times article, there's at least one North County lawmaker who is asked what he thinks about all these things, and he doesn't have a problem with it. So if Congressman Issa's North County constituents don't have a problem with his increasing his fortune while representing them, is there anything in this article that seems to you like an ethical smoking gun?
BYCEL: No. I think that the article is rather soft. Far be it for me to criticize the editorial board of the New York Times, but I think there's no smoking gun in that editorial. It's a generalized story. It could be a generalize story of any one of dozens of Congress people or senators. But the notion that you're only going to do things with the approval or disapproval of your constituents is the wrong way to look at government. You're supposed to be a leader. You're supposed to set policy. You're supposed to be out in front rather than saying, well, I'll ask my constituents each time. Of course you want their input, but to say if they don't have any problem with my ethics, there should be no problem, that's not a healthy way to look at government.
CAVANAUGH: And as you say, it's all about perception.
BYCEL: It is all about perception. And that's -- an unfortunate reality of the way our news cycles run, life in the 21st century. And you can't always worry about perception. But there are many times that you should deal with perception. And since you have a platform, you have somewhere to talk, you can try to dispel the misconception.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to let everyone know that there are links to the New York Times article on are Darryl Issa and the full response to that article from his congressional office on our website, KPBS.org. I've been speaking with attorney Benjamin Bycel, and thank you so much, Ben.
BYCEL: Oh, my pleasure.