Alaska Congressman Don Young's efforts to help his party have resulted in his being linked to some of the year's top financial scandals.
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Three recipients of Republican Young's political largess have been indicted in the last year and resigned from Congress. One is in jail, one has pleaded guilty and one is awaiting trial.
Rep. Randall "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., is serving an eight-year sentence for accepting bribes from defense contractors; Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, is awaiting sentencing for arranging favors for scandal-plagued lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and former house Majority Leader Tom Delay, R-Texas, is fighting charges of laundering illegal campaign contributions.
Cunningham received $5,000 from Young's political action committee, or PAC, Ney received $2,500 and DeLay received $5,000. All the contributions from Young came after the allegations against them were well-known, acknowledged Young spokesman Mike Anderson.
"It all stems from something called loyalty," he said.
Young is loyal to his friends, which often include fellow committee chairmen he has known for years, Anderson said. Anderson serves as Young's chief of staff in Washington, D.C., but is taking a leave of absence to work on the congressman's re-election campaign in Alaska.
Lawmakers' PAC contributions to candidates
2005-06 election cycle. Source: Committee for Responsive Politics
Republican Young is facing off against Democratic challenger, Diane Benson, in the Nov. 7 election.
"I'm not surprised," Benson said when she heard on what Young had been spending his PAC donations.
Young calls his PAC the Midnight Sun Political Action Committee. It is what is known as a "leadership PAC," with which members of Congress who are so secure in their own re-election efforts continue to raise money and donate it to other current and prospective members of Congress.
Young is chairman of the House Transportation Committee, which is known in Congress as one of the body's most lucrative positions. The chairman typically gets the power to "earmark," or allocate funds, for specific projects, usually in their home state.
It's a process that some observers say should be done away with, and both earmarking and leadership PACs have come under fire as the issue of ethics reform has gained prominence in the last year.
"To me it doesn't represent leadership at all," said Steve Cleary, executive director of the liberal Alaska Public Interest Research Group. "It shows the power of incumbency and a deformation of our democracy."
AkPIRG is supporting a bill introduced in Congress last summer which Cleary said would ban leadership PACs. That bill, HR 5839, was introduced by Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo. It didn't go anywhere, but Cleary said with a change in control of the House and with bi-partisan support it might.
Anderson said Young's Midnight Sun PAC has worked well for Alaska, helping both the Congressman build up favors that would be useful to the state later, but also helping like-minded members of Congress get elected.
The DeLay Contribution
Anderson said that Young was approached personally by Tom DeLay, then considered the most powerful member of the House of Representatives and the person who selected Denny Hastert, R-Ill., to be House Speaker.
"You need to have a fundamental understanding of Mr. Young. One of his first priorities is loyalty and loyalty to his friends," he said.
At that point DeLay was running for re-election and maintaining his innocence, Anderson said.
"Tom DeLay needed some help and asked," he said.
Young made the contribution from the Midnight Sun PAC "not knowing everything that was going to come out," Anderson said.
Cleary was skeptical of that explanation.
"I'm pretty sure the whole world knew what was going on at that point," he said.
The Midnight Sun contribution came in March of this year; DeLay announced his resignation in April. He'd been indicted in Texas in 2005.
The Bob Ney Contribution
Young believed Ney's statements that he was innocent of allegations of wrongdoing, Anderson said.
In January of this year lobbyist Abramoff pled guilty to bribing members of Congress. The indictment against him referred to an unnamed "Representative No. 1," who was quickly identified in the press as Ney. Young made the Midnight Sun contribution in March and Ney pled guilty to accepting bribes in September.
"Mr. Young is of the belief that one is innocent until proven guilty," said Anderson.
At the time Ney was not only maintaining his innocence, but also was running for re-election.
"Mr. Ney was a fellow committee chairman and said 'I need some help with my campaign,'" Anderson said.
Randall Cunningham Legal Expense Fund
At the time Young contributed to Cunningham's fund for legal expenses it was obvious that he was under investigation, Anderson said. Again, Young believed Cunningham's claims that he'd done nothing wrong.
"At that point he was convinced Mr. Cunningham was innocent," he said.
"Who's not going to believe a person who was a Vietnam vet, retired military, congressperson," said Anderson. "Mr. Young believed him."
Cunningham is now serving an eight-year sentence for accepting more than $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors.
Until earlier this year, the Midnight Sun PAC was headed by lobbyist Jack Ferguson, whose Jack Ferguson Associates represents clients in transportation, natural resources and other industries, according to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
"The firm works closely with the Alaska congressional delegation," it says on its Web site.
The official head of the Midnight Sun PAC is now Ermalee Hickel, the state's former first lady. Administration of the fund is still handled by Linda Harrigan, however. She is the office manager at Jack Ferguson Associates.
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