LEGISLATIVE TRANSPARENCY AND ACCOUNTABILITY ACT OF 2007 -- (Senate - January 12, 2007)
Mr. KERRY. I thank the Chair.
Mr. President, my amendment is cosponsored by Senator Salazar, Senator Ben Nelson, and Senator Pryor, and it is based on a bill Senator Salazar and I introduced that we hope will go some further distance in this effort we are engaged in now with ethics reform to reestablish the trust of the American people in their Government in Washington.
We do this by an effort to prevent Members of Congress who betray that trust from receiving their pensions. This is plain deterrence. It is an effort to try to make it clear there are serious consequences to betraying that trust.
In a sense, the trust is larger than perhaps the day-to-day relationship of most citizens in this country to the law. We take a special oath of office to uphold the Constitution of the United States. But, more importantly, when people elect you to high Federal office, or any office, they are putting a special kind of trust in you to represent their lives, their interests, their values--indeed, the highest level of aspiration of values that we all share in this country.
So this is done because there is something that grates in the notion that you can put the public's trust and the public's business up for sale and then walk away and have the people whom you betrayed turn around and pay for you to be able to have for the rest of your life a fat pension because of the level of service you had reached at their trust.
Let me be very specific about this. A few years ago, Congressmen Randy ``Duke' Cunningham sat down at a cozy meeting with some lobbyists and he proceeded to betray the public trust.
He used his official congressional stationary to draft a series of quid pro quo deals.
Let me show you this blowup of the stationary itself: Here is the congressional seal. Here is Randy ``Duke' Cunningham's name. Here is a list of the amounts of millions of dollars: $16 million; ``BT'--that is ``boat'--``140'--that was $140,000--$17 million; an additional $50,000; $18 million, $50,000. Once they paid about $340,000. The price of this service went down, and he charged only $25,000 for each million dollars of contract that he would award.
He was convicted of collecting approximately $2.4 million in homes, yachts, antique furnishings, and other bribes--including a Rolls Royce--from defense contractors. This disgraceful conduct--which is beyond the comprehension of any Member of this institution--earned him 8 years and 4 months in a Federal prison, and it has required him to also pay the Government $1.8 million in penalties but also some back taxes.
But under today's rules, the American taxpayer is going to continue to pay a Federal pension that is out of the reach of any American taxpayer, and that is disgraceful. Right now, only a conviction for a crime against the United States, such as treason or espionage, would cost a Member of Congress their pension. So we set a standard for the pension being held accountable, but it is only for two things. Surely we ought to put this moral bar higher than that.
Most Americans do not get a $40,000 a year pension. Those who abuse the public trust should not be allowed to exploit the Federal system at taxpayers' expense. The American people cannot afford to spend millions on pensions for politicians who steal from them. More importantly, Congress cannot afford to have a standard where it is willing to forgive and forget and betray that trust.
I have shown what the ``bribe menu' was, which is a pretty extraordinary menu. Unfortunately, Congressman Cunningham was not alone. Last November, Representative Bob Ney resigned from the House of Representatives after pleading guilty to conspiracy and making false statements. In a plea agreement, former Representative Ney acknowledged taking trips, tickets, meals, and campaign donations from Mr. Abramoff in return for taking official actions on behalf of Abramoff clients.
In March 2002, Representative Ney inserted an amendment in the Help America Vote Act to lift an existing Federal ban against commercial gaming by a Texas Native American tribal client of Abramoff. In return, Representative Ney received all-expenses-paid and reduced-price trips to Scotland to play golf, a trip to New Orleans to gamble, and a vacation in Lake George--all courtesy of Mr. Abramoff.
Another former Congressman, Jim Traficant, currently enjoys a lavish taxpayer-funded lifetime pension worth an estimated $1.2 million, despite being thrown out of Congress and sent to jail.
So these examples are just three of at least 20 former lawmakers who were convicted of serious crimes and are still receiving a taxpayer-funded pension, some as high as $125,000 a year.
As I said earlier, we should hold ourselves to the highest standards. The principle is a simple one: Public servants who abuse the public trust and are convicted of ethics crimes should not collect taxpayer-financed pensions. This should serve, hopefully, as a bold deterrent that when any Member comes in here, they know they are putting their lives at greater risk than just the penalty they might pay on a short-term basis for their particular transgression.
This amendment denies Federal pensions--as soon as is legally possible--to Members of Congress who are convicted of white-collar crimes, such as bribery of public officials and witnesses, conspiracy to defraud the United States, perjury in falsely denying the commission of bribery or conspiracy, and subornation of perjury committed in connection with the false denial or false testimony of another individual.
It is my understanding there is some concern among a couple of Members about how this legislation might affect innocent spouses and children of Members of Congress who lose their pensions as a result of this legislation. Obviously, we are trying to set up an adequate deterrent to prevent people from that in the first place.
Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent for 1 additional minute.
The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.
Mr. KERRY. But after the legislation is enacted, the Member will still receive a refund of all of their personal contributions--those will not be taken away--into either the Federal Employees Retirement System or the Civil Service Retirement System, and they will retain all the benefits from the Thrift Savings Plan.
Also, the payment of spousal benefits is permitted in forfeiture cases when the Attorney General determines that the spouse cooperated with Federal authorities in the conduct of a criminal investigation.
This can significantly improve our Government by the way business is done. I hope my colleagues will join overwhelmingly in voting to prohibit sending pension checks to criminals. This amendment is a step in the right direction.