A federal indictment, and a Grimm limbo

     U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm speaks at a news conference in a park next to federal court, Monday, April 28, 2014, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. The Staten Island Republican was arrested earlier in the day and pleaded not guilty to a 20-count federal indictment that includes charges of mail fraud, wire fraud and tax fraud. (Mark Lennihan/AP Photo)

    U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm speaks at a news conference in a park next to federal court, Monday, April 28, 2014, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. The Staten Island Republican was arrested earlier in the day and pleaded not guilty to a 20-count federal indictment that includes charges of mail fraud, wire fraud and tax fraud. (Mark Lennihan/AP Photo)

    Let’s talk about congressional bad boys – there have been very few bad girls – and what the heck we should do about them.

    The newest case is Michael Grimm, the Republican congressman from Staten Island best known for his affable relations with the press (“I’ll throw you off the f—–g balcony!”). He was hit yesterday with a 20-count federal indictment, including mail fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy to defraud, health care fraud, perjury, and aiding the preparation of false tax returns. He allegedly kept two sets of books at a restaurant he owned.

    The U.S. attorney says that Grimm “never met a tax he didn’t lie to evade,” that he “made the choice to go from upholding the law to breaking it.” (Wow, Grimm allegedly broke the law by refusing to pay what he owed? He could be Cliven Bundy without the cowboy hat.) Grimm naturally says he’s as innocent as a newborn calf, “a moral man, a man of integrity,” and that the two-year fed probe is just a political vendetta. Meanwhile, a fed probe into his congressional campaign finances is ongoing, and two of his fundraisers have already been indicted.

    Grimm is vowing to continue his service to the people of Staten Island, while fighting “tooth and nail” to defeat the frameup/vendetta. He’s also running for re-election in November (he’s the sole Republican in the New York City congressional delegation), and it appears the GOP is stuck with him anyway – because it’s too late to remove his name from the ballot.

    So what do we think? Given Speaker John Boehner’s recent treatise on bad behavior – “I expect all members to be held to the highest ethical standards” – should Grimm be compelled to quit his House seat? Or should he stay on the job because, after all, a criminally accused American is always presumed innocent until proven guilty?

    This is a tough one, because the House has long been wildly inconsistent on the issue of punishment. Some bad boys are deemed far badder than others, especially when sex (real or virtual) is involved.

    For instance: Tom “The Hammer” DeLay, the once-feared House Republican leader, stayed on the job in ’05 after being indicted on conspiracy charges of violating Texas election laws. Democratic congressman William Jefferson stayed on the job in ’07 after being indicted on 16 corruption counts (the FBI had found stacks of money in his freezer). Democrat Charlie Rangel, “the poster child for sleazy incumbency” (as I called him), is still on the job despite being censured for 13 corruption counts (a House ethics probe, not an indictment). And last autumn, Republican congressman Trey Radel stayed on the job for a few months after pleading guilty to a cocaine rap.

    But sex-scandalized congressmen – notably Anthony Weiner, Mark Souder, Mark Foley, Chris Lee – are typically forced to quit. They’re out the door, even in the absence of criminal charges. In fact, it happened again yesterday. Vance “The Kissing Congressman” McAllister, who was caught on video liplocking at length with a friend’s wife, succumbed to pressure and announced he won’t run for re-election this year, even though he hasn’t been criminally charged with anything.

    The House has always had a tough time cleaning house. For starters, there is no constitutional requirement that members accused of crimes be forced to step down. Nor is there any such requirement in the House rules. As the Congressional Research Service has pointed out, “Members of Congress…have been indicted and charged with various offenses, and then been subsequently exonerated in judicial proceedings. The House has thus been reluctant to remove from Congress individuals who have been lawfully elected.” A forced removal “would, in effect, disenfranchise that member’s entire constituency.”

    So how come the sex-scandal lawmakers are typically forced out, despite never havng been indicted? Melanie Sloan, who runs a watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, had a good answer yesterday: “They want to get rid of the members whose scandals are easily covered by the 24-hour news channels round the clock. Complicated financial dealings aren’t.” Even Mark Foley, one of the sex-scandal departees, popped up in the press to say, “The House has to decide what are the (punishment) standards…Shouldn’t all infractions involve the same penalty box?”

    Maybe it just isn’t sexy to explore 24/7 how Grimm allegedly kept two sets of books at his restaurant, thus concealing $1 million in gross receipts on his way to becoming a tax deadbeat. Maybe that’s enough of a yawner to keep him in Congress. But for the Republicans, the political situation looks Grimm. His House race was already competitive (it was a pro-Obama district in 2012), and now he’s far more vulnerable. As Nathan Gonzalez, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, dryly tells CNN, “Getting arrested usually qualifies as a game-changer.”

    Even if Grimm were to quit now, clearing the way for a more electable Republican, his name would stay on the ballot – unless he gets convicted before November (not likely), or gets nominated for a judgeship (definitely not likely), or declares residency outside the district. Still, the word is that one of Grimm’s predecessors, Vito Fossella, wants a fresh shot at the seat. Remember him?

    Back in May 2008, married congressman Fossella got busted for drunk driving; turned out, he was en route to see his girlfriend, with whom he’d sired a child. He kept his House job, and he even vowed to run for re-election – until he realized that his enthusiastic family values would be a net minus at the ballot box.

    Sounds like an ideal replacement for Grimm! And hey, at least two-family Fossella never told a reporter, “I’ll break you in half. Like a boy.”

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

     

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