Our Chatty Cathy Congress

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Those of us former little girls of a certain age can remember a doll that we all had to have. She was called Chatty Cathy, and if you pulled a string in her neck, she would say things like “Please brush my hair” and “Let’s have a party!”

It turns out that Chatty Cathy and the United States House of Representatives have a lot in common. Except in Congress’ case, it is the biotechnology industry that has been pulling the string.

In today’s New York Times, Robert Pear has a story that tells us how it happened that more than a dozen lawmakers made virtually the same statement in the official record of the House health care debate. (It’s worth knowing that these are not necessarily speeches they gave on the floor itself, but rather, what gets printed in the Congressional Record when they ask permission to “revise and extend” their remarks. So no one actually hears them say it, but it does go into the official history of the event, and it does put them firmly on record. It also tells the lobbyists’ paymasters that they are getting good return on their investment.)

In this case, the statement in question had actually been written by the biotechnolgy industry–which, as Michael Scherer and I wrote a few weeks back, has been a big winner in the health reform debate, rolling over even such powerful figures as Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman to get its way. Pear (a reporter whose digging skills are legendary among those of us who have been around Washington a while) tells us:

Genentech, a subsidiary of the Swiss drug giant Roche, estimates that 42 House members picked up some of its talking points — 22 Republicans and 20 Democrats, an unusual bipartisan coup for lobbyists.

In an interview, Representative Bill Pascrell Jr., Democrat of New Jersey, said: “I regret that the language was the same. I did not know it was.” He said he got his statement from his staff and “did not know where they got the information from.”

Members of Congress submit statements for publication in the Congressional Record all the time, often with a decorous request to “revise and extend my remarks.” It is unusual for so many revisions and extensions to match up word for word. It is even more unusual to find clear evidence that the statements originated with lobbyists.

Those statements generally went something like this:

In separate statements using language suggested by the lobbyists, Representatives Blaine Luetkemeyer of Missouri and Joe Wilson of South Carolina, both Republicans, said: “One of the reasons I have long supported the U.S. biotechnology industry is that it is a homegrown success story that has been an engine of job creation in this country. Unfortunately, many of the largest companies that would seek to enter the biosimilar market have made their money by outsourcing their research to foreign countries like India.”

In remarks on the House floor, Representative Phil Hare, Democrat of Illinois, recalled that his family had faced eviction when his father was sick and could not make payments on their home. He said the House bill would save others from such hardship.

In a written addendum in the Congressional Record, Mr. Hare said the bill would also create high-paying jobs. Timothy Schlittner, a spokesman for Mr. Hare, said: “That part of his statement was drafted for us by Roche pharmaceutical company. It is something he agrees with.”

The boilerplate in the Congressional Record included some conversational touches, as if actually delivered on the House floor.

In the standard Democratic statement, Representative Robert A. Brady of Pennsylvania said: “Let me repeat that for some of my friends on the other side of the aisle. This bill will create high-paying, high-quality jobs in health care delivery, technology and research in the United States.”

A lobbyist whom Pear describes as “close to Genentech” insists that there is nothing nefarious about any of this, and that it happens all the time. Indeed, this is not the first I’ve heard of something along these lines. One practitioner was the infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff.:

A few years later, Ney paid unusual attention to another Abramoff client, the Florida gambling boat company SunCruz, which was headquartered more than 1,000 miles outside of Ney’s congressional district. Abramoff and his business partner were trying to buy the cruise ship fleet from Konstantinos “Gus” Boulis, but Boulis was demanding unwelcome additional terms.

In March 2000, Ney used the Congressional Record to assail Boulis.

“On the Ohio River we have gaming interests that run clean operations and provide quality entertainment,” Ney wrote. “I don’t want to see the actions of one bad apple in Florida, or anywhere else to affect the business aspect of this industry or hurt any innocent casino patron in our country.”

Ney’s remarks were orchestrated by Michael Scanlon, a former DeLay spokesman who had just been hired to work for Abramoff at Preston Gates & Ellis LLP. Scanlon had approached Ney through his chief of staff, Neil Volz, according to sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Volz has repeatedly declined to be interviewed.

A few months later, Boulis agreed in principle to sell SunCruz to Abramoff and Kidan for $147.5 million. The deal closed in the fall. But Abramoff and Kidan failed to make good on a $23 million payment owed to Boulis, court records show.

When Boulis was being difficult in the negotiations, Ney again made an official statement, this time heaping praise on Kidan.

“Since my previous statement, I have come to learn that SunCruz Casino now finds itself under new ownership and, more importantly, that its new owner has a renowned reputation for honesty and integrity,” Ney said in the Congressional Record on Oct. 26, 2000. “The new owner, Mr. Adam Kidan, is most well known for his successful enterprise, Dial-a-Mattress, but he is also well known as a solid individual and a respected member of his community.

“While Mr. Kidan certainly has his hands full in his efforts to clean up SunCruz’s reputation, his track record as a businessman and as a citizen lead me to believe that he will easily transform SunCruz from a questionable enterprise to an upstanding establishment that the gaming community can be proud of.”

But Kidan’s “track record” included a string of lawsuits, judgments, liens, bankruptcies and failed businesses. His Dial-a-Mattress franchise in the District was in bankruptcy. He had filed personal bankruptcy, and he had surrendered his law license in New York after being accused of fraud. One of his mentors, Anthony Moscatiello, was alleged by law enforcement to be an accountant for New York’s Gambino crime family.

Ney later said he did not know about Kidan’s background.

Ney ended up spending some time in prison; Abramoff is still there. So is this a sign of corruption, coziness or just laziness on the part of lawmakers? Whatever it is, it stinks.

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