CNN Breaks Media Mold: Wonders if Dems Will Keep Funding Felons

Amidst all the media hype over what CBS’ Bob Schieffer called the congressional Democrats’ "ambitious schedule" to reform ethics rules and regulations, Wednesday’s "Anderson Cooper 360" actually provided a tough, worthwhile report on what real ethical reform would be. According to CNN correspondent Drew Griffin, convicted members of Congress still receive thousands of dollars in pensions. Yes, disgraced felons such as James Traficant, Randy Cunningham, and Dan Rostenkowski each year accrue large sums of taxpayer money. Host Anderson Cooper introduced the subject and seemed to issue a challenge to the Democrats:

Anderson Cooper: "Well, the new Congress convenes tomorrow with Democrats in control, who have pledged to pass a number of bills in the first 100 legislative hours. They have also promised to change some ethic rules on Capitol Hill. One law that they're not tackling is pensions for convicted members of Congress. That's right, tax dollars used to pay for the retirement of felons."

Griffin, not mincing words, then demonstrated how members of the media could find real issues of ethical reform to bring to the public’s attention:

Drew Griffin: "It's an unwritten law that says crime doesn't pay. But don't tell that to these guys. [Graphic appears onscreen of convicted congressional felons] Every single one of these former members of Congress either pleaded guilty to, or was convicted of, at least one serious crime. Yet, every one of them is estimated to be receiving that dollar amount next to their picture every year, their congressional pension based on their years in office, you, the taxpayers, paying the pension of crooks. Even if they take you out of Washington in handcuffs and throw you in prison, Congress still gets its pension. Case in point, Randall ‘Duke’ Cunningham -- he pleaded guilty to using his congressional office to accept bribes, kickbacks, money from the contractors he was voting to give government business. Cunningham right now is sitting in this federal prison in North Carolina, and getting his government pension, an estimated $64,000 a year, sent to a congressional felon sitting in the can."

John Berthoud (Natl. Taxpayers Union): "Cunningham has to be the classic example."

Griffin: "John Berthoud is president of the National Taxpayers Union. It's a watchdog lobbying group, mostly interested in cutting the size of government, cutting waste and cutting taxes. Because federal pensions are secret, all of the figures you've seen in this report are estimates based on the Taxpayers Union's calculations. Berthoud can think of no better example of government waste than sending $64,000 a year to Duke Cunningham."

Griffin closed his report by noting that disgraced Democrat Daniel Rostenkowski currently receives an estimated $126,000 for his yearly pension:

Griffin: "And who among the convicted felons of Congress is getting the most out of his retirement? That would be the guy who lives in this Chicago building and owns this car. Take a look at the license plate. Retired member of Congress. That big ‘R’ stands for the big guy, Chairman Daniel Rostenkowski, usually not shy about talking to the media, except when it comes to his estimated $126,000 a year taxpayer funded pension. The former chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee told us on the phone he has nothing to say. And in fact, Rostenkowski, who was sent to prison for mail fraud, may have good reason not to answer his door. Just a month ago, the state of Illinois used its felony conviction clause to take away the pension of former governor George Ryan, who was convicted and sentenced to 6 1/2 years for mail fraud, money laundering, and extortion. But that's state law. Under federal law, the only grounds for stripping a congressman of his pension is if he's convicted of treason. The National Taxpayers Union for years has been calling for a tougher conviction clause. A simple change says Taxpayers Union president Berthoud, if you are convicted of any felony while in office, you forfeit your right to get paid."

Berthoud: "It's hard, unless maybe you're a member of Congress or a former member of Congress, for anybody to understand how on earth you could ask taxpayers to pay pensions for people like that."

Griffin: "Now two dozen watchdog groups have joined the campaign, sending this letter to the incoming Democrats who vowed to drain the swamp, asking them to at least drain the felons from the swamp."

Griffin directed his challenge to the incoming Democrats, but it could just as easily be asked of the media: Don’t be lazy in accepting the Democrats claims of ethics reform. Are they going to continue to fund felons or not?

A transcript of the segment, which aired at 10:28pm on January 3, follows:

Anderson Cooper: "Well, the new Congress convenes tomorrow, with Democrats in control, who have pledged to pass a number of bills in the first 100 legislative hours. They have also promised to change some ethic rules on Capitol Hill. One law that they're not tackling is pensions for convicted members of Congress. That's right, tax dollars used to pay for the retirement of felons. CNN's Drew Griffin tonight is ‘Keeping Them Honest.’"

Drew Griffin: "It's an unwritten law that says crime doesn't pay. But don't tell that to these guys. Every single one of these former members of Congress either pleaded guilty to, or was convicted of, at least one serious crime. Yet, every one of them is estimated to be receiving that dollar amount next to their picture every year, their congressional pension based on their years in office, you, the taxpayers, paying the pension of crooks. Even if they take you out of Washington in handcuffs and throw you in prison, Congress still gets its pension. Case in point, Randall ‘Duke’ Cunningham -- he pleaded guilty to using his congressional office to accept bribes, kickbacks, money from the contractors he was voting to give government business. Cunningham right now is sitting in this federal prison in North Carolina, and getting his government pension, an estimated $64,000 a year, sent to a congressional felon sitting in the can."

John Berthoud (Natl. Taxpayers Union): "Cunningham has to be the classic example."

Griffin: "John Berthoud is president of the National Taxpayers Union. It's a watchdog lobbying group, mostly interested in cutting the size of government, cutting waste, and cutting taxes. Because federal pensions are secret, all of the figures you've seen in this report are estimates based on the Taxpayers Union's calculations. Berthoud can think of no better example of government waste than sending $64,000 a year to Duke Cunningham."

Berthoud: "But all of us are still paying this guy $64,000 a year, roughly, while he sits in prison. And, you know, I think the vast majority of Americans think that that is really, really wrong."

Griffin: "And Cunningham is hardly alone."

James Traficant (File footage of former Congressman): "I’m not going to admit to crimes I did not do."

Griffin: "James Traficant, the Ohio congressman convicted of bribery and sentenced to eight years, is collecting an estimated $40,000 a year sitting in this federal prison in Minnesota. Traficant and Cunningham didn't respond to our letters, and former Minnesota Congressman Dave Durenberger didn't want to talk to us either."

Dave Durenberger: (File footage of former Congressman): "The Department of Justice has charged me-"

Griffin: He pleaded guilty to fraud in 1995, did a year's probation and paid a fine. Now we pay him an estimated pension of $86,000 a year. And who among the convicted felons of Congress is getting the most out of his retirement? That would be the guy who lives in this Chicago building and owns this car. Take a look at the license plate. Retired member of Congress. That big ‘R’ stands for the big guy, Chairman Daniel Rostenkowski, usually not shy about talking to the media, except when it comes to his estimated $126,000 a year taxpayer funded pension. The former chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee told us on the phone he has nothing to say. And in fact, Rostenkowski, who was sent to prison for mail fraud, may have good reason not to answer his door. Just a month ago, the state of Illinois used its felony conviction clause to take away the pension of former governor George Ryan, who was convicted and sentenced to 6 1/2 years for mail fraud, money laundering, and extortion. But that's state law. Under federal law, the only grounds for stripping a congressman of his pension is if he's convicted of treason. The National Taxpayers Union for years has been calling for a tougher conviction clause. A simple change says Taxpayers Union president Berthoud, if you are convicted of any felony while in office, you forfeit your right to get paid."

Berthoud: "It's hard, unless maybe you're a member of Congress or a former member of Congress, for anybody to understand how on earth you could ask taxpayers to pay pensions for people like that."

Griffin: "Now two dozen watchdog groups have joined the campaign, sending this letter to the incoming Democrats who vowed to drain the swamp, asking them to at least drain the felons from the swamp."

Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock is the senior news analyst for the Media Research Center and a contributing editor for NewsBusters.org