Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2005 | 8:14 a.m.
WASHINGTON -- In modern politics, elected officials rarely make headlines by accepting campaign money. But they are noticed when they return the money, or even consider doing so -- a practice that was more common in the scandal-marred 2005 Congress.
"Clearly, we're in one of the cycles when it seems like every time you turn around someone is returning campaign money," said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.
Several times this year Nevada's lawmakers found themselves in the prickly position of having taken money from congressmen or lobbyists accused of crimes.
* Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., who had taken $11,000 from Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., gave the money to Goodwill this month after Cunningham pleaded guilty to taking bribes from government contractors and resigned from Congress.
* Porter and Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., in September said they would return money they had taken from former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, but only if he is convicted. DeLay faces money laundering charges in a campaign financing case.
* Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said he could not return nearly $4,000 he received in 1998 and 2000 from David Safavian, a former Bush administration official arrested in September on suspicion of making false statements and obstruction of justice in an investigation of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Democrats criticized Ensign, who said the money was long since spent.
Do these money ties hurt the politicians? "The closer you are to an individual in a scandal, the more it sticks to you," Eric Herzik, UNR political science professor, said. But the Nevada congressmen probably will avoid any taint because merely accepting campaign money did not directly link them to the alleged behavior of the contributor, Herzik said.
Amy Walter, who analyzes House races as senior editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said the spate of scandals this year will hurt elected officials in a broad sense because they feed voter disgust with politicians in general.
"Voters are much more primed for an anti-incumbent, anti-Washington message than they have been in quite some time," she said. "It gives Democrats some ammunition to try to tie them (GOP incumbents) to the bigger story. It gives them a piece in a bigger puzzle, and that puzzle is the time-for-change message."
In general it was a worse year for Republicans in Washington.
"They're clearly at greater risk," said Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
Democrats this year tried to tie the Republican Party in general to the troubles of DeLay, Cunningham and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who faced questions about his investment. Also hurting the GOP was the White House, which suffered the indictment of vice presidential aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
"There is no doubt there was an increase in ethical controversies and questions compared to a normal year," Rothenberg said.
The year also was notable in that controversy touched the highest levels of GOP leadership -- DeLay, Frist and the White House, Rothenberg said.
But observers were also quick to note that the allegations against DeLay, Libby and Frist are still unresolved. DeLay's legal limbo, in particular, put rank-and-file Republicans such as Porter and Gibbons in a tough spot.
"If you are a Republican, you've gotten money from Tom DeLay," Herzik said. "Do you give the money back and risk offending the majority leader? Then if he is found innocent, you weren't there with him in his time of need."
Of course, political operatives of both parties will pounce on the other regardless of how well-defined a controversy is.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada often led the charge for Democrats this year, as party leaders accused the GOP with fostering a "culture of corruption."
Republicans have turned the tactic on Reid, in one case trying to link Reid to the Abramoff controversy by noting that he took money from Abramoff's firm, its PAC and its Indian casino clients. Reid has received $60,000 from those sources, according to Reid's office.
This month three senators said they would return money tied to Abramoff, who is at the center of a Justice Department investigation into whether his contributions brought him undue influence with lawmakers.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., gave back $67,000 he received from Abramoff associates and clients. Montana Republican Conrad Burns returned $150,000 he received from Abramoff associates and clients and from the lobbyist himself. Montana Democrat Max Baucus said Monday that he will donate to seven tribal colleges the nearly $19,000 he received from Abramoff clients and associates.
On FOX News on Sunday, Reid said he felt "totally at ease that I haven't done anything that is even close to being wrong."
"Don't lump me in with Jack Abramoff," Reid said. "This is a Republican scandal. Don't try to give any of it to me."
However, on Monday, Reid spokeswoman Tessa Hafen said the senator does plan to review all donations tied to Abramoff.
Benjamin Grove can be reached at (202) 662-7436 or at [email protected]